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Wednesday, Dec 17, 2008, 11:20 am

Weekly Pulse: Public Health Insurance Would Be Too Good, Republicans Warn

By Lindsay Beyerstein
A common thread is emerging in the right wing response to healthcare reform. Its opponents aren't claiming that public healthcare will be bad. Rather, they are terrified that the new system will be so good that no citizen would buy expensive private insurance--or vote for politicians who wanted to take public insurance away.

The Obama team is sending clear signals that healthcare reform is a core economic issue, and the health insurance industry is becoming increasingly anxious by the future administration's determination to bring healthcare costs under control. Some Americans are seeing their healthcare premiums rising at four times the rate of inflation, if they have insurance at all. Healthcare reform is a pocketbook issue for all of us, according to the Obama team.

In tough economic times it might be tempting to postpone healthcare reforms, but Obama is adamant that delay would be a false economy.

In the American Prospect, Joanne Kenen and Sarah Axeen support claims about the high cost of doing nothing:
A recent report by the New America Foundation's health-policy program estimates that the cost of doing nothing about health care, including poor health and shorter lifespan of the uninsured, is well above $200 billion a year and rising. That's enough to cover the uninsured and still have some left over for other public-health needs.

If healthcare costs continue to rise at their current rates, it will cost $24,000/yr to insure a family of four by 2016, an 84% increase from today. At these rates, half of American households would have to spend at least 45% percent of their income to be insured.

In the Nation, Willa Thompson describes how a bicycle crash made her appreciate the connection between healthcare and politics. Thompson was 21 years old when she suffered major injuries after a collision with a truck. Luckily, she was covered by her parents' medical insurance until she turned 22. She later realized that if she had been just a few months older when the accident happened, she wouldn't have been able to pay for her medical care.

We all agree that something needs to be done. Let's briefly review the options that have been proposed so far. Obama wants to provide healthcare for all by requiring private insurance companies to cover everyone and creating a public health insurance plan to compete with private insurers. The second part of his plan is the public option that Republican opponents are so scared of.

Insurance companies love the idea that we'll all be forced to buy their expensive product. They're not so keen about competition from the public sector.

Ezra Klein writes, "If you're looking for the coming fault line on the left of health care politics, keep an eye on what happens to the public insurance option in the health reform bill." Will the public plan survive? Not if the Republicans and the insurance lobby have anything to say about it. As evidence, Ezra cites this passage from a recent article in Congressional Quarterly:
Mark Hayes, a Republican health policy adviser to the Senate Finance Committee, said Republicans have concerns because the government plan might have access to price controls and other tools not available to private insurers. This could lead to lower premiums in the government plan, which would cause most consumers to migrate out of the private market, he said.

"Over time the effect the government option could have [is an] erosion in the private market, [making] other choices not available," Hayes said.

The consensus among progressives is clear, the public plan must prevail. In fact, many advocate going all the way to single-payer health insurance. Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee argues in the Progressive that Obama and Daschle should opt for single payer health insurance. Now is no time for piecemeal solutions:
Such a path would perpetuate the crisis and deal a cruel blow to the hopes of Americans for real reform. Those in Congress and liberal policy organizations who are embracing caution or promoting more insurance, not more care, are playing a risky game. It could jeopardize the health security of tens of millions of Americans and, in the process, fatally erode public support for the Obama administration.

Ezra links to a candid post from the blog of the right wing Cato Institute wherein Michael F. Cannon argues that blocking Obama's health plan is the key to GOP survival. Why? Because, history shows that once people start getting good healthcare from the government at a price they can afford, they want to keep reelecting the politicians who make that possible. Cannon calls the phenomenon where people reelect governments that give them good healthcare "becoming dependent on the government," we call it "voting our self-interest."

In other healthcare news, public health advocates are not pleased about rumors that Obama may ask Mark Dybul to stay on as US Global AIDS Coordinator for the first year of Obama's term. Dybul is responsible for implementing the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which funds AIDS prevention and treatment in 15 poor countries. Advocates say that Dybul, a medical doctor, is too focused on medical interventions and behavioral changes for individuals, and not sufficiently concerned with broader public health initiatives.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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