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October 7, 2012

For health care, doesn't the U.S. deserve better?

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The Daily Star

---- — As the son of a licensed nurse practitioner, it strikes a nerve every time I read stories about our health care system leaving patients out in the cold.

Such was the case when we learned that over 100 residents of Countrywide Care Center, the former Delaware County-owned nursing home sold to Leatherstocking Healthcare Llc. in 2006, faced eviction after Leatherstocking decided to abruptly close the facility instead of rectifying dozens of care “deficiencies” cited a month earlier by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

For some, such coarse cost-cutting measures are a matter of life and death, which makes it especially hard to reconcile them with a health care system that wastes a staggering $750 billion each year – more than the entire annual Pentagon budget – according to a study published in September by the renowned Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences.

The oft-maligned and woefully inadequate law signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 has been scornfully dubbed “Obamacare” by Republicans, but the president has recently embraced the term, pithily rebutting: “I do care.” And Obama’s harangues for Congress to reform a system that provides the nation with little bang for its buck were sincere and commendable.

But because U.S presidents are largely limited to signing or vetoing legislation – as opposed to the prime ministers of parliamentary governments – Obama had to rely on venal lawmakers from within his own party, such as Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, to get a bill passed. As the Senate Finance Committee chairman, Baucus steered the bill during its embryonic stage into the pockets of the same lobbyists who at the time had contributed just under $4 million to his campaign.

“There are no enemies and villains here,” Baucus said Aug. 4, 2009. “Most companies, industries, want to reform the system because they know we have a lousy system. We have to work together to find out … a uniquely American solution, which is public and private.”

In another life, Baucus might have done well as a snake-oil peddler’s shill in the American West, a planted huckster in the crowd insisting those transient quacks really have our best interests at heart. Only a bribe-taker such as Baucus could ignore that the United States spends a far greater share of its gross domestic product on health care than any other country – despite being one of the few industrialized Western nations still lacking guaranteed coverage for all its citizens.

The truth is that for decades, some have been riding a “uniquely American” gravy train; the same folks who’ve been buttering Baucus’ bread. And they’ll get an even more lucrative windfall in 2014 once the purchase of private health insurance becomes mandatory.

Baucus’ paymasters – who quashed a public “Medicare-for-all”-style plan that would have provided competition – were harshly excoriated by Wendell Potter, a former public relations chief for health care giant CIGNA, in a must-read 2009 interview with health reporter Trudy Lieberman.

“A public plan could offer the same benefits as a private plan at less costs because it would not have the high administrative costs, which include sales, marketing and underwriting expenses,” Potter said. “It would not be under constant pressure from Wall Street to reward shareholders.”

Potter, to his credit, left CIGNA after what he described as his “road to Damascus” moment.

“A couple of years ago I was in Tennessee and saw an ad for a health expedition in the nearby town of Wise, Va. Out of curiosity I went, and was overwhelmed by what I saw,” he said. “Hundreds of people were standing in line to get free medical care in animal stalls. Some had camped out the night before in the rain. It was like being in a different country. It moved me to tears. Shortly afterward, I was flying in a corporate jet and realized someone else’s insurance premiums were paying for me to fly that way.”

But in its attempt to capitalize on opposition to an Obama-backed law whose passage stunk to high heaven, the Republican Party badly misread myriad polls that showed many Americans actually thought “Obamacare” didn’t go far enough to rectify the excesses of an industry that too often treats patients as revenue streams first and human beings second. Vice-presidential hopeful Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare by 2022 has been aptly skewered by critics as “Vouchercare” because it’s just another poorly disguised attempt to redirect public money into the pockets of private interests under the banner of “reform.” Nor does the GOP do its credibility much favor with its attempts to blame the long-awaited demographic strains Baby Boom retirees pose to Medicare on some mythical “Obamacare” spending binge.

Unfortunately, neither party seems serious about improving our embarrassingly inefficient system. We’ve all heard the refrain that government bureaucrats shouldn’t stand between patients and their doctors, but perhaps the same should be said for parasitic Wall Street shareholders.

JUSTIN VERNOLD is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at jvernold@thedailystar.com