Newt Gingrich has an idea. It's an important idea. It's creative. It's also a sham.
Basically, Newt is claiming he can "transform" health care – but what he's really doing is shilling for the predatory companies that feed on the nation's suffering.
The heart of his plan would be to make every individual responsible for battling with the insurance and medical industries on health care – we'd lose what little muscle we have though employer-based group plans. We spend $2 trillion a year on health care – a staggering amount that is more per capita than the rest of the industrialized world. It's a gold mine for the insurance and medical companies – between 1995 and 2005, our medical expenses soared 77 percent.
Did you get 77 percent better health care?
I was hanging at a CL "Political Party" last year when a fellow named Jay Fine tugged my sleeve and said, "Write about the health-care crisis soon." I asked why. "If you don't have insurance, it's all you think about," he said. I recently got an e-mail from Fine. He's living – dying – at a California hospice.
Fine's employer, a bank, was purchased. The way financial warlords squeeze profits out of such deals is to fire thousands of employees. That happened to Fine. After that, he never could afford health insurance. Then he got cancer. After that, no insurance company would cover him.
There are close to 50 million Jay Fines in the United States, 1.8 million in Georgia alone. Some can't afford insurance, and insurance companies rebuff others because, well, they actually need medical care. About 18,000 Americans will die this year because, without insurance, they won't receive medical attention.
Probably half of Americans – maybe many more – have health insurance that provides little coverage. That's why half of all personal bankruptcies stem from medical catastrophes.
Compare that with Europe or Canada. Yes, occasionally there are delays in elective care. But primary care is efficient and quick, and money isn't a factor. No insurance executive with an eye on profits decides if you live or die. Hell, in France, "government" doctors still make house calls. No charge.
America has finally awoken to the fact that we have a crisis. An ABC/Washington Post poll shows that by a 2-1 margin, 62 percent-32 percent, Americans favor universal health insurance over the current system of private insurance companies making huge profits by denying medical services to their victims ... errrr, I mean clients.
Universal health insurance is what George Bush, Sean Hannity, Saxby Chambliss and the rest of the extremist right call "socialized" medicine. Bush recently threatened to veto an expansion of health insurance for poor children – little kids, for Christ's sake! The increase totaled $50 billion over five years, about what Bush pisses away in Iraq in ten months. Bush fretted: "When you expand eligibility ... you're really beginning to open an avenue for people to switch from private insurance companies to the government."
If "socialism" means providing health care to every American without wasting 30 percent of what we spend on insurance outfits, then two-thirds of Americans are ready to call themselves "comrade." It's worth noting here the well-trod fact that every industrialized nation, except for the United States, has universal health care. Less-known is that the first country to adopt such a sane program was Germany in 1883 under the leadership of the decidedly conservative, anti-communist "Iron Chancellor," Otto von Bismarck.
More to the point, Bush is scared silly people will discover – eureka! – that government can do a far better job than the woefully inefficient "market" system we now suffer under.
Enter Newt Gingrich. As a congressman from the North Atlanta burbs, he was a generalissimo for the 1994 Republican "revolution," became speaker of the House, had several ethical "oops," got run out of the speaker's office, retired, and became a 900-pound gadfly on the national stage who may or may not be considering a run for president.
For two days each week, he works out of a Cobb County office on health-care issues.
"Yes, Newt supports 100 percent coverage," says Nancy Desmond, one of Gingrich's colleagues at the Center for Health Transformation. Don't start panicking at the thought that Gingrich has gone raving Marxist on us.
Desmond explains that the Gingrichian plan would transform the paper-based medical records system to digital. No dispute there. Equally noncontroversial is Newt's emphasizing preventive care – paying to prevent diabetes, for example, rather than paying to amputate a diabetic's foot.
But Gingrich's vision, Desmond says, is based on individuals "having the information to make decisions." What the Newt is getting at is letting employers off the hook. Everyone would be responsible for making his or her own health decisions (I think I'll bone up on neurosurgery today), and paying for those choices.
If Newt's "you're on your own, pal" health plan was adopted, and companies no longer had to pay for their employees' health insurance, would they be required to give that money back to their workers in the form of pay raises? "I don't think so," Desmond titters. But the faux-conservative Gingrich would require, by law, for everyone to purchase health insurance. Can you spell "windfall"?
What goes undiscussed in the mainstream media is that Gingrich's think tank is funded by companies whose messages he trumpets. When Congress pondered cutting money for research on some cancer drugs, Gingrich went to bat for the Big Pharma members of his center that produce the drugs. Other Gingrich messages parallel the sales pitches of supporters such as WellPoint, UnitedHealth Group, BlueCross BlueShield and about 200 other insurance, medical and technology companies that ante $10,000 to $200,000 to get the Newt's favor.
It's a massive conflict of interest, but, hey, this is Newt.
Don't get warm and fuzzy about Democrats, however. Of all the presidential candidates, Democrat or Republican, Hillary Clinton has pocketed the most from the health-care and pharmaceutical industries, which want to make sure "Hillarycare" is nothing more than tweaks on the gouge-the-public system we now have. The candidates are waffling on what "universal" health care means – but the insurance companies don't seem panicked.
And if we want to have a healthy nation, we'd better scare those insurance companies. To death.
Editor's note: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated the amount of money an increase in health care for poor children represented over a four-year period.
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