New health care bill is a victory for corporate power

By Cal Colgan |

Back when Liberal Democrats actually had spines, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a proposal during his final State of the Union address for a “Second Bill of Rights.” Roosevelt thought the civil liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights could not by themselves give economic equality to the American people. He proposed an “economic bill of rights,” one of which was “(t)he right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.”

That was January 1944. More than 60 years later, the United States ranks 37th in the list of countries with the overall best health care, and the best our Congress and our president could do was to pass and sign into law a watered-down bill that, after months of compromising and pandering to conservatives, keeps our for-profit health care system intact.

This does not mean there aren’t good provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the reconciliation act that followed it. Young adults will be relieved to know that come this September, they can stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until they turn 26, even if they decide not to continue their college education. For senior citizens, the federal government will provide discounts to help them pay for their prescription drugs, particularly those in Medicare’s “coverage gap,” where currently no part of their pharmaceutical costs are covered.

The law’s proponents claim that lower-income Americans have also achieved a victory. About 16 million people will be added to Medicaid, the government’s program that helps low-income people pay for health care. Medicaid will even cover families whose household income is 133 percent higher than the national poverty standard of $30,000 a year for a family of four.

But perhaps the biggest victory toted by the Dems is the fact that private health insurance companies will no longer be able to deny health care to children and adults with pre-existing health conditions.

Passing the bill was not easy. It received staunch opposition from the House Republicans, none of whom voted for it, but it even came under criticism from some of the more progressive Democrats. Dennis Kucinich, the Democratic congressman from Ohio, originally vowed to oppose the bill’s passage unless it contained a provision for a public option, in which private insurance companies would have to compete with a government-run health care system to ensure that the companies keep their premiums down. But last week, the progressive Democrats agreed to sign the bill with all its speed bumps in the hopes that it would lead Americans down the road to affordable health care and the realization of F.D.R.’s dream.

Yet taking a closer look at the bill shows a massive pandering to the same for-profit health care system that, according to the recent U.S. Census, has denied between 46.3 million people health care.

While some of the bill’s provisions become law this September, Americans won’t reap all of its benefits until 2014. Researchers at the Harvard Medical School said that by that time, 180,000 Americans could die before coverage expands to treat their health problems. While the mainstream news reports that an estimated 32 million people will be covered by the new changes to the health care system, simple arithmetic reveals that close to 15 million people still won’t have health care.

Although millions of young adults are celebrating the possibility of staying on their parents’ plan until they are 26, the future is not as rosy for some of their peers. The Associated Press recently reported that in 2014, when all Americans are required by law to purchase some form of health insurance, adults under 35 who purchase their own insurance will see premiums rise by 17 percent.

In order to get pro-life Democrats in the House to vote for the bill, President Obama issued an executive order which prevents women from using federal health care to cover the cost of an abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s life. The anti-abortion provision is a defeat for women’s rights. Now, women of poor economic backgrounds who want to terminate a pregnancy but cannot afford a private plan that will cover an abortion are forced to have an unwanted child whom they most likely cannot support.

The bill depends on state-level “exchange programs,” which supposedly provide an easy, government-regulated way for people who cannot get coverage from their employer to buy insurance online. However, Mother Jones Magazine reports that the states and not the federal government are responsible for making sure that the exchanges actually occur, and the 14 states currently suing the Obama administration for signing the bill into law are not likely to keep a watchful eye on a program they don’t even want.

But the biggest setback to the proponents of a New Deal for health care is that the health insurance companies that for decades have denied people adequate coverage emerge victorious from the reform battle. The 32 million people that will now receive coverage will not be seen as humans in the eyes of corporations like Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield; they will be seen as new paying customers.

These private companies have two years to raise their rates and deny people coverage until the law takes effect. And a recent Democracy Now! interview with Michael Moore revealed the companies’ only penalty for denying coverage due to a pre-existing condition is a $100-a-day fine. Many private insurers will likely pay the fine rather than pony up thousands for an unhealthy patient.

Big Pharma can also bask in the rays of victory. The bill did not overturn the 2007 law that prevents the federal government from negotiating discounts on prescription drug prices or from importing cheaper Canadian drugs. And because the new health care reforms fail to regulate pharmaceuticals to ensure lower prices for the drugs, Big Pharma will continue to terrorize its customers with price gouges.

This is not a win for the American people; it is a concession. The public option died in the Senate, and a universal single-payer system where a government body guarantees everyone affordable health care was never really on the table.

And why would it be, in such a backward political system where private companies decide who can and cannot get treatment, and a government-run system that guarantees health care for all is decried as “authoritarian” and “socialist?” No, Congress and the president will not make universal health care a reality, even when our European counterparts, most of which are as every bit as capitalist as we are, have such a system. They have too much to lose from a real overhaul, as some of the very companies that supported their election campaigns would cease to exist.

In a society that views such a basic human attribute as a commodity rather than a human right, it is hard to be hopeful that this bill will lead to more lasting changes. Maybe one day, this journalist’s cynicism will prove unfounded, and the last words of F.D.R.’s Second Bill of Rights will ring true: “(U)nless there is security at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

More from Health Care 101:

  • The Top 5 Things to Know About the Health Care Reform:

    One thing that anyone — not just students — should know about the Health Care Reform bill is that it will affect them now, in September and then permanently in 2014. These are the top five things that an 18 to 26-year-old should know.

  • Video: What students think about Health Care Reform:

    Flagler students voiced their concerns on Health Care Reform. Kyle Rogers doesn’t want others to have pay for him. Jonathan Hooper fears universal health care. Ryan Palm thinks the U.S. is behind the curve.

  • Locals weigh in on Health Care Reform:

    Carol DiSalvo thinks the new Health Care Reform will be a welcome blessing to her and her husband. For many in St. Augustine, the newly passed reform is imposing long-awaited changes to the current health care system in the U.S. DiSalvo has been working in a small local bistro for the past two years.

  • Opinion: Health care is not a right; it’s a service

    We have all heard President Obama say he thinks health care should be a right for every American. I don’t think the government should be in the business of mandating the purchase of any good or service.

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