On September 12, under the scorching Baraboo sun, thousands of activists and concerned citizens gathered on the Sauk County fairgrounds to share ideas, meet state and national legislators, and to hear the bombastic cries from outraged investigative journalists. While many topics were floated around, including clean water, the death of the newspaper industry and the privatization of the American military, one topic came to the fore again and again: the need for heath care reform in the United States, and the paradigm shift that health care ought to be seen as a basic human right. Here is a brief overview of the ideas expressed.
Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin stepped to the podium as the first rays of light were just coming over the bluffs. But who better than Baldwin to kick off the debate? She has made the issue a spearhead of her career, bemoaning the 404,000 Wisconsin residents that remain uninsured as of 2008. Baldwin has been a champion of Wisconsin’s leading medical science community, proclaiming that “limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research will hamper advancements in medical research”. She also continues to fight for a comprehensive and affordable plan for seniors, having opposed Medicare Part D for offering a “dizzying array of choices” and “misinformation”. And the most under-treated illnesses of all remain mental health issues. Says Baldwin: “1 in 10 children and adolescents suffer from mental illness severe enough to cause some level of impairment, yet more than 80 percent of children who need mental health treatment do not receive it.” Untreated children become untreated adults, leaving them unable to cope in school, the work force and society. Health issues are not simply personal, but impact the productivity and well-being of the community as a whole.
State Senator Kathleen Vinehout told the story of Glenn, a small business owner in Jackson County who was dropped by his insurance and now had to literally hold in his intestines each morning on his way to work, and Mark, a dairy farmer who was paying $3800 a month in health insurance and had to opt out when his rate went up yet again. The insurance industry calls this “purging”, and Vinehout calls purging a “disgusting word for a despicable practice”. In her animated way of speaking with not only her hands but her whole body, the senator laid out step by step how insurance agencies can on one hand appear to be in favor of quality health care by investing in good public relations rather than medical treatments, and then at the same time try to discredit legitimate reformers while raising premiums as much as forty-seven percent to have their customers pay for actions against their best interest. Perhaps some of this is rhetoric or hyperbole, but all too often when we pull back the curtain, we find the truth to be heinous.
Vinehout had been, prior to her election, a dairy farmer herself and faced similar insurance issues that Mark did. When her son needed surgery, she was forced to refinance the farm in order to cover the $15,000 in out-of-pocket expenses. Other people with fewer personal assets may not have had this option. In a bold move, she twisted the words of her detractors who called her a socialist to point out how much socialists and activists such as Mother Jones have done for America, including prior health care reforms and the promotion of an eight-hour work day. While not outright identifying herself with such a label, she welcomed the comparison.
Wendell Potter was this year’s shooting star, shining bright and burning out fast. Those who are news junkies will recognize Potter as a former public relations man for Cigna cum whistleblower. His message is simple but important: the claims made by reformers that insurance agencies will cancel coverage are not only real, but common. To Cigna and others, health is primarily a business, not a way to cure the sick. If your cancer is treatable but costly, you may soon find yourself untreated.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the socialist-leaning independent from Vermont, received the bulk of the crowd’s energy, who chanted “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” to egg him on. He made his opinion on health care, among other issues, well known. Sanders called it “an international and moral disgrace” that America “remains the only major country on Earth that does not guarantee health care for every man, woman and child.” That forty-six million are uninsured and millions more underinsured is “unacceptable”. He cited a statistic claiming that 18,000 Americans die every year due to lack of insurance. Yet, we “are spending nearly twice as much per person on health care as any other country”. He says this is due to paying hundreds of billions of dollars each year to “bureaucrats in the private sector who tell us we are not covered for what we paid for” rather than funding an increase in doctors, dentists and nurses. His solution? Single payer “Medicare-for-all” that would “put our health care dollars into health care, not bureaucracy”. Or, “at the very, very, very least, a strong public option”. In an interesting anecdote, Sanders laid out just how right-wing America is when he explained how his most conservative counterparts in the English Parliament were outraged about the debate in America, that anyone could think the free market should decide who lives or dies.
Headliner Greg Palast offered one of the most blunt and critical analyses of Candidate Obama versus President Obama on the issue of health care. During the campaign, we were told that the “game” of dealing with the pharmaceutical industry behind closed doors was over. Any conversations, and they were to be few, would be visible on C-SPAN for the world’s scrutiny. A new age of transparency. Yet, Palast brought with him a memo outlining an agreement between the White House and the drug industry, unknown to the public. Among other things, for a piddly donation from Big Pharma, the administration agreed to block the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada. So, the game is still being played and the American people are the losers. We may get reform, but what costs can we cut when we preemptively declare certain options off the table?
All I can say is, whatever comes of the bills being presented to Congress, the debate is far from over for liberals and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
THE POLISH CONNECTION: Readers may recall that last August I reported on a missile defense shield being planned in Poland and the Czech Republic, designed to prevent long-range Iranian attacks. I am pleased to announce that President Obama has canceled this program, much to the chagrin of Rep. John Boehner, who ignorantly claims the program’s cancellation will “empower Russia and Iran”, which he calls “some of the most dangerous regimes”. Boehner, worrying about “weakening our national security”, fails to identify what threat Russia or Iran pose to any American citizen or how a European-based shield protects contiguous America.