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Thursday, March 18, 2010

WRECKED, WRACKED, OR RX: Thanks to a sneaky, underhanded, duplicitous, and utterly cowardly maneuver the Democrats have just unveiled — dubiously dubbed “deem and pass” — we might actually witness an honest-to-god vote on health insurance reform within our lifetime. Maybe even this week. The Republicans are crying foul, and, I have to admit, with genuinely good cause. The Democrats finally figured out how to copy a parliamentary cram-down tactic routinely used by the GOP during the eight-year Idiocracy of George W., to bypass any pretense of debate, compromise, or even discussion. All I can say is it’s about freaking time.

Angry Poodle

Admittedly, what I don’t know about the health-insurance bill would fill about 14 phone books; what I don’t understand would fill even more. But Houston, when it comes to health care, even I know we have serious a problem. This week, I spoke with Bill Strong, a Santa Barbara corporate finance whiz, whose Health Net premiums for his wife and daughter have gone up 82 percent in the past two years alone. As Strong himself will tell you, his situation is far from typical. But 82 percent! According to a study just released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the “average California worker” is now paying 83 percent more for their share of employer-provided health coverage than they were eight years ago. And they’re the lucky ones. UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research just released a study showing that one out of every four Californians under the age of 65 lacks health insurance of any kind. Two years ago, that number was just under 20 percent.

I harbor no illusions that the measures passed by the House and the Senate won’t come back to bite us all on the ass in serious and unexpected ways. But right now, my illusion that something can be done — or, more precisely, that we are capable of doing anything at all — is of paramount importance. It trumps content. To that end, I’m willing to accept the watered-down, wimpy, compromised thing before us today. I’m even okay if it contains the extortionate, pork-barrel shakedown on behalf of Nebraska residents that representatives from the Cornflower state managed to extract. At least that makes sense on some level.

What makes no sense is that when the Democrats even whispered about offsetting the admittedly high costs associated with insurance reform by taxing products that undermine public health — known as “stupid taxes” — they got slaughtered. They proposed a modest surcharge on soft drinks and other sugar products known to pose known deleterious medical consequences among chronic consumers. Projections indicated such a tax would generate $50 billion during the next eight years. The soft drink lobby — which usually spends about $700,000 a year — unleashed a $19-million blitz to kill the tax. Soft drinks don’t create fat and sedentary couch potatoes, dangerously prone to Type II diabetes, its lobbyists argued; the real villain, they argued, is couches. The industry donated generously to organizations representing minority and low-income constituencies; these in turn lobbied their representatives in Congress that such a tax would unfairly target poor people. Congress quickly backed off. A tanning salon tax, however, is still on the table.

My point is this: As compromised as the current health-care measure clearly is, it ain’t going to get any better next year. Or the year after that. In 2009, a total of $460 million was spent by all the various interest groups lobbying congress on health-care insurance reform. While that’s clearly a record high, we ain’t seen nothing yet. That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court just struck down about 100 years of legal precedent and liberated corporations from the cumbersome restrictions of federal campaign finance laws. I know it’s cheap and unoriginal to pick on big corporations, but they make it sooo irresistible. How is it that in 2009 — in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression — the top five insurance companies reported a 57-percent increase in profits? Or that in the past 10 years, their profits soared by 250 percent?

Maybe the real problem is that we’re living too long. The vast majority of health-care costs are consumed by people during the last five years of their lives. Maybe we should return to the good old days of 1900, when the average American died at age 47, or 1950, when the average citizen had the good grace to kick the bucket at the age of 68. Now we malinger about — bankrupting our children, I am told, so we can play tennis with artificial hips — ’til the ripe old age of 78. There are other so-called civilized nations that can boast of comparable or even higher life expectancies. And they don’t spend nearly as much on health care as we do. I know that as Americans, we are genetically programmed to be Number One in everything. But spending 18 percent of the gross domestic problem on our ailments is hardly a distinction of which to be proud. France, Germany, and Canada, for example, spend one-third less on health care. But then they have also a public option, something the United States has seen fit to dismiss as a socialist intrusion. Last I checked, all three of these countries qualify as industrialized capitalistic democracies. Last I checked, Germany and Canada cleaned up in the recent winter Olympics. This I know from witnessing the Olympics, firsthand, on TV, while drinking unhealthy beverages from the vantage point of my couch. If there was anything left in my glass, I’d feel compelled to raise it up in praise of “deem and pass.” You may not know what it means. But it may just save your life.

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