Congress’ rotten healthcare bills: whatever happened to the public option?

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“Americans with and without health insurance lose their homes and their lives because they cannot afford medical care,” fumes Dr. Samuel Metz, of Mad as Hell Doctors. “It’s time to put the medical health of 300 million Americans ahead of the financial well-being of 1,100 health insurance companies.”

It has been a year since President Obama called for revamping healthcare in the U.S. He rejected outright universal, cost effective healthcare provided by the government, like the Veterans Administration gives, or financed by taxes, like Medicare. Over these many months, the House and Senate wrangled over tweaks to the current private insurance-based system. The bills contain a few improvements, overshadowed by so many giveaways to insurance and drug companies that they would make our healthcare system worse.

Why has it taken so long to get so little? Because the plan that was supposed to benefit ordinary people is really all about corporate profits. It is painfully clear that the interests of big business and of workers are diametrically opposed. Working people are rejecting the legislation, which gives many politicians cold feet about voting for it this election year.

The business agenda. Because Barack Obama raised healthcare reform in his election campaign, many assume he was responding to public concern over poor coverage and high costs. But back in 2007 the Business Roundtable issued a report arguing that rising healthcare costs were limiting the ability of U.S. business to compete on the world market. Thus began the “healthcare insurance reform” initiative.

The Business Roundtable is no Rotary Club. An association of CEOs from major U.S. corporations with almost $6 trillion in annual revenue, their companies comprise nearly a third of the total value of U.S stock markets. Four members are part of the “big five” insurers who reported record profits totaling $12.2 billion in 2009 — up 56 percent from the previous year!

This group pulls the strings. The day before President Obama convened his bipartisan health care summit, intended to break the logjam in Congress, he paid a visit to members of the Business Roundtable. “I am an ardent believer in the free market,” he assured them. “I want everyone in this room to succeed.”

The healthcare insurance reform package, if it ever emerges from Congress, will benefit big business – as it was always meant to.

Paltry plan. As the Freedom Socialist goes to press, it appears the final version will be the Senate’s, but the House’s was little better. It had a government-provided insurance program (the public option), but few people would have been eligible for it. It won’t be in the final bill in any case.

An estimated 30 million people will be obliged to buy insurance or pay a fine. Those unable to pay can get federal subsidies, but 23 million will either be unable to afford insurance even with the subsidies, or are excluded from coverage because they are documented immigrants who have lived in the country less than five years, or are undocumented!

So many obstacles have been placed on abortion coverage that insurers are expected to stop offering it. Many with insurance through their jobs will be locked into insurance plans they cannot afford. There are no cost caps on deductibles, co-pays or premiums, and no limits on the windfall profits of drug companies.

One of the few positive pieces is that insurers won’t be able to deny coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions. But they can raise premiums for the unhealthy, women and seniors by as much as three times! No wonder there’s so much opposition!

The fight goes on. The group Labor for Single-Payer held a conference in Washington, D.C., on March 5-7 to strategize on taking the battle to the next level. As National Coordinator Mark Dudzic says, “The ones who should pay for [healthcare] are those who can afford it, who’ve feasted at the table of American capitalism — costs should not be foisted onto working people.” Whatever shady deal comes out of Congress will likely be countered with rolled up sleeves and growing determination by militant labor, patients, doctors and nurses unions.

Jordana Sardo is the organizer for Portland FSP. She can be reached at

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