Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blue Dogs Collecting Cash on the "Long, Strange Trip" of Health Care Reform

If the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead were alive today to witness the nation’s health care reform debate, he’d probably say something like this: “What a long, strange trip it’s been, man.”

Wild-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth citizens shouting down trembling congressmen at town hall meetings, erstwhile vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin calling reform proposals “evil” and raising the specter of federal “death panels”, posters depicting President Obama with a Hitler mustache, doctors decrying “socialized medicine”, a South Carolina congressman interrupting Obama’s speech to Congress with “You lie!”

You’d think more unity would exist to fix a $2.2 trillion system that in 2000 ranked a miserable 37th among other nations in the quality of its health care. Before things polarized, polls showed 80 percent of Americans unhappy with a system that was consuming a quarter of the federal budget—not to mention individual budgets—yet leaving 47 million citizens without any health insurance. A 2006 poll showed 56 percent of Americans supporting birth-to-death universal government-backed health care.

Whenever things are bad in this country, they’re worse here in Mississippi, where this writer lives. In the state with the highest poverty rate, 21.2 percent, and the lowest wages for its workers, some 37 percent of the under-65 population was without health insurance during some part of the past year.

The state’s leading politicians, used to such dismal statistics, are dealing with the issue in predictable manner. Gov. Barbour worries that federal efforts to expand Medicaid assistance for the poor might unduly burden the state with extra costs—perhaps even push Mississippi into some real tax reform.

Like most Republicans everywhere, Mississippi Republicans can be relied upon to oppose just about anything Obama supports. They remind me of the old Communists in Poland after they’d lost their power. They had a magazine called Nie! Translation: No!—No to everything the new regime wants.

More interesting is the position staked out by Mississippi’s two leading “Blue Dog” Democrats: Congressmen Travis Childers and Gene Taylor. Both oppose the so-called “public option” that 57 percent of Americans support but which the health care industry has spent $263 million to oppose in Congress. The industry has hired 3,300 lobbyists to sway Congress—or six lobbyists for each member of Congress.

Among those lobbyists are the hired guns of the Breaux-Lott firm in Washington, led by former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat from Louisiana, and Mississippi’s own Trent Lott, the most stalwart of Republicans. The firm thus far this year has made over $300,000 lobbying for the big pharmaceuticals concerned about their profit margins.

By the way, health insurance companies saw their profits rise from $2.4 billion in 2000 to $12.9 billion in 2007. Their CEOs earned a neat $118.6 million, or 468 times the average worker’s wages.

Veteran Congressman Taylor of the Gulf Coast has received $535,765 in contributions from the health care industry over the past 20 years. North Mississippi’s Childers, only in Congress since the summer of 2008, has already piled up $165,500 in such contributions.

The Blue Dogs in Congress,“Boll Weevil” descendants and most of them Southerners who often act like Republicans in Democrat clothing, are key to the success or failure of health care reform and thus are recipients of much health care industry largesse these days. According to the Capital Eye Blog, contributions to Blue Dog Democrats from the health care industry are 40 percent higher than what non-Blue Dog Democrats get, and even 16 percent higher than what Republicans are getting. Top Blue Dog Mike Ross of Arkansas is in a bit of a controversy these days because of the pharmacy business that he and his pharmacist wife sold in 2007 at a huge profit to, at least in part, a pharmacy industry executive. The controversy extends to the subsequent political contributions Ross received from that same executive and the health care industry in general.

As all these money transactions take place, the little guy out there continues to get socked with rising health care costs. In fact, health care costs to the average family are twice today what they were 10 years ago, and are expected to double again by 2019.

When you look back across the history of politics in this country—and in the South—maybe this “long, strange” trip isn’t so strange after all.

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