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Bill Moyers: The Health Bill Is a Bonanza for the Insurance Industry and Other Monied Interests

So we got health care reform last week -- but it's a far cry from reformation. For all their gnashing of teeth, the insurance companies still make out like bandits.
 
 
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That wickedly satirical Ambrose Bierce described politics as "the conduct of public affairs for private advantage."

Bierce vanished to Mexico nearly a hundred years ago -- to the relief of the American political class of his day, one assumes -- but in an eerie way he was forecasting America's political culture today. It seems like most efforts to reform a system that's gone awry -- to clean house and make a fresh start -- end up benefiting the very people who wrecked it in the first place.

 

Which is why Bierce, in his classic little book,  The Devil's Dictionary, defined reform as "a thing that mostly satisfies reformers opposed to reformation."

So we got health care reform last week -- but it's a far cry from reformation. You can't blame President Obama for celebrating what he did get -- he and the Democrats needed some political points on the scoreboard. And imagine the mood in the White House if the vote had gone the other way; they would have been cutting wrists instead of cake.

Give the victors their due: the bill Obama signed expands coverage to many more people, stops some very ugly and immoral practices by the health insurance industry that should have been stopped long ago, and offers a framework for more change down the road, if there's any heart or will left to fight for it.

But reformation? Hardly. For all their screaming and gnashing of teeth, the insurance companies still make out like bandits. Millions of new customers, under penalty of law, will be required to buy the companies' policies, feeding the insatiable greed of their CEOs and filling the campaign coffers of the politicians they wine and dine. Profits are secure; they don't have to worry about competition from a public alternative to their cartel, and they can continue to scam us without fear of antitrust action.

The big drug companies bought their protection before the fight even began, when the White House agreed that if they supported Obama's brand of health care reform -- not reformation -- they could hold onto their monopoly. No imports of cheaper drugs from abroad, no prescriptions filled at a lower price by our friendly Canadian neighbors to the north.

And let's not forget another, gigantic health care winner: a new report from the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity says the battle for reform has been "a bonanza" for the lobbying industry. According to the Center's analysis, "About 1,750 businesses and organizations hired about 4,525 lobbyists, total -- eight for each member of Congress -- and spent at least $1.2 billion to influence health care bills and other issues."

But while we're at it, a cheer for the federal student loan overhaul -- Democrats managed to pass that reform with an end run around powerful lobbyists, cleverly nestling it in the health care reconciliation package.

Nonetheless, under pressure from the lending industry, it, too, was watered down from its original intent. The three Democratic senators who voted against -- Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor -- have all received campaign contributions from Nelnet, the student loan company based in Nelson's home state of Nebraska, or its lobbyists.

(And would you be amazed to learn that one of the student loan industry's lobbyists used to be Blanche Lincoln's chief of staff? The Capitol Hill newspaper  Roll Call  described Kelly Bingel as Lincoln's "alter ego," and cited a former colleague saying Bingel was "first on the list of the Senator's callbacks," words that would sound like heaven to any Washington lobbyist's ears.)