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Bill Moyers: How Can We Expect an Industry That Profits from Disease and Sickness to Police Itself?

The health care industry has spent $134 million on lobbying this year to keep its profits high and public health in the shadows.

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Meanwhile, some of us looking on – those of us who’ve been around a long time – were scratching our heads. Hadn’t we heard this before?

Way, way back in the 1970’s Americans were riled up over the rising costs of health care. As a presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter started talking about the government clamping down. When he got to the White House, drug makers, insurance companies, hospitals and doctors – the very people who only a decade earlier had done everything they could to strangle Medicare in the cradle – seemed uncharacteristically humble and cooperative. “You don’t have to make us cut costs,” they promised. “We’ll do it voluntarily.”

So Uncle Sam backed down, and you guessed it. Pretty soon medical costs were soaring higher than ever.

By the early ‘90s, the public was once again hurting in the pocketbook. Feeling our pain, Bill and Hillary Clinton tried again, coming up with a plan only slightly more complicated than the schematics for an F-18 fighter jet.

This time the health industry acted more like Tony Soprano than Mother Teresa. It bludgeoned the Clinton reforms with one of the most expensive and deceitful public relations and advertising campaigns ever conceived – paid for, of course, from the industry’s swollen profits.

As the drug and insurance companies, hospitals and doctors dumped the mangled carcass of reform into the Potomac, securely encased in concrete, once again they said don’t worry; they would cut costs voluntarily.

If you believed that, we’ve got a toll-free bridge to the Mayo Clinic we’d like to sell you.

So anyone with any memory left could be excused for raising their eyebrows at the health care industry’s latest promises. As if on cue, hardly had their pledge of volunteerism rung out across the land than Jay Gellert, chief executive of Health Net Inc. and chair of the lobbying group America’s Health Insurance Plans, assured his pals not to worry abut the voluntary reductions. “We believe that we can do it without undermining the viability of companies,” he said, “and in effect enhancing the payment to physicians and hospitals.” In other words, their so-called voluntary “reforms” will in no way interfere with maximizing profits.

Also last week, John Lechleiter, the chief executive of drug giant Eli Lilly, blasted universal health care in a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “I do not believe that policymakers have yet arrived at a full and complete diagnosis of what’s wrong and what’s right with U.S. health care,” he declared. “And I am very concerned that some of the proposed policies—the treatments, to continue my metaphor—will have unintended side-effects that make our situation worse.”

So why bother with the charm offensive on Pennsylvania Avenue? Could it be, as some critics suggest, a Trojan horse, getting the health industry a place at the table so they can leap up at the right moment and again knife to death any real reform?

Wheelers and dealers from the health sector aren’t waiting for that moment. According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, they’ve spent more than $134 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2009 alone. And some already are shelling out big bucks for a publicity blitz and ads attacking any health care reform that threatens to reduce the profits from sickness and disease.

The Washington Post’s health care reform blog reported Tuesday that Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina has hired an outside PR firm to put together a video campaign assaulting Obama’s public plan. And this month alone, the group Conservatives for Patients’ Rights is spending more than a million dollars for attack ads. They’ve hired a public relations firm called CRC – Creative Response Concepts. You remember them – the same high-minded folks who brought you the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the gang who savaged John Kerry’s service record in Vietnam.

 
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