After the Cheering Subsides, What Was Actually in Obama’s Speech?

Like many who watched President Obama’s health care address Wednesday night, I experienced moments of exhilaration.

There was some moral fiber, conviction and even passion to many of his words, reminiscent of his speeches on the campaign trail. And who couldn’t love the fact that he actually, finally, lambasted some of his critics on the right? I mean, when’s the last time you heard any politician denounce a lie as a lie, a “flat out” lie no less?

Hopefully, however, those of us who were thrilled by his words before have learned to exercise a little caution when it comes to applauding his actual policies – think Afghanistan, mountain top coal removal, climate change and energy policy, Wall St. bailouts, etc..

Because when you look at the actual policy he was proposing in his primetime speech, the assessment of one NPR reporter rings singularly true: the left got the rhetoric, and the centrists got the substance. Which means, of course, that the country will get the shaft.

But before I get ahead of myself, here’ s a quick look at some elements in his speech, and the profound problems with them.

“I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits.” Official factcheckers are already debunking the math behind this dubious assertion, as has (previously) the Congressional Budget Office. Of course Obama is far from the first politician to sugar coat a financial reality, so part of me wants to give him a break. But wouldn’t it be better to actually fess up to the real costs involved, and make the forthright statement that spending money on health care for all Americans is worth it? Because if we start with this false premise, how much health care will we lose in the future when it becomes clear what the real costs are?

“…not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan.” Following on the previous statement, Mr. Obama is telling us he will pay for most of his plan by wringing $500 billion in savings from Medicare in ten years – but only by cutting waste and fraud. Right. How often do politicians tell us this about cutting costs, and how often is it true? If I were a senior citizen, I think I’d have some real concerns about my Medicare right now.

“Under this plan, it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition.” This is a good idea and a real attention grabber, with its strong progressive tone, but how much does it ultimately matter? Health insurance companies and drug makers have spent years figuring out how to bend or evade every conceivable rule applied to them, and if they get caught every once in a while and have to pay a fine, that’s just a cost of doing business for them. Did you know for instance that earlier this month pharmaceutical giant Pfizer reached a $2.3 billion settlement with the U.S. Justice Department – that’s $2.3 BILLION –  for unlawful prescription drug promotion? And that in so doing, Pfizer broke a record set only seven months before by fellow drug maker Eli Lilly & Company, whose settlement at that time was described by the Justice Department as the “largest individual corporate criminal fine” in U.S. history?

“Now is the season for action….Now is the time to deliver on health care.” … but… “We will do this by creating a new insurance exchange….this exchange will take effect in four years.” Excuse me, but if it’s so bloody important to pass health care reform NOW, why will a supposedly central chunk of said reform, an insurance exchange for individuals to buy insurance at (allegedly) reasonable prices, have to wait another four years? Am I the only one that finds the timing a little suspect – that we’ll have to wait until after the next Presidential election for this plan to take full effect?

Elections aside, this delay is a perfect example of the moral timidity if not outright bankruptcy of many Democratic proposals. They tell us, for instance, we should be deeply concerned that upwards of 20,000 Americans die each year for lack of health insurance – more than one every 30 minutes – but when it comes to solving the problem… um… could they have a few more years? Perhaps someone should erect a “death clock” on the Capitol grounds, like the deficit clock in New York city, except this one would tally the number of Americans dying from lack of health care while we wait for Congress to deal with the problem.

“I have no interest in putting insurance companies out of business. They provide a legitimate service.” Really? And what might that service be – apart from funneling millions of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians and funding disinformation campaigns to kill any reform?

The various deceptions and policy problems above, while fairly damning, are typical of most politicians and are used on most issues. But at this point, President Obama is showing his true allegiances in this battle when he defends the hated (and rightfully so) insurance companies.

Let’s be very clear on this – health insurance companies do *not* provide any legitimate service in our health care. They perform no tests, no procedures, provide no health counseling. They never delivered a single baby or took a single temperature. All they do is stand between you and your doctor, make everyone’s life miserable when you try to get health care, and then take a big fat slice of your health care dollars for doing it. To quote a colleague, only in America would huge profits for a value-negative intermediary corporate process be considered as making any sense whatever.

And only if you’re one of the people making money from that deal, as Mr. Obama and the Democrats most decidedly are, every time they take another campaign contribution from those insurance companies.

And then, the clincher from the speech:

“An additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange…. by avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits, excessive administrative costs and executive salaries, it could provide a good deal for consumers…. It would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better.” However… “It is only one part of my plan… and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.”

So there you have it. President Obama finally gives a coherent, compelling explanation of why a public option is necessary – and then follows up by saying he’s not going to fight for it. Poof – you can consider it gone already.

Of course this is what he and his aides have been implying for some time now, and it’s just a logical follow up to his position of ruling a single payer plan off the table from the get go. And why not? Single payer is only the most proven, cost effective system for delivering  health care, one that is used in one form or another by every other industrialized country in the world, all of which surpass the U.S. in virtually every health statistic. Who would want that? Other than about 60% of the American public, that is? (And remarkable, isn’t it, how President Obama can call single payer “radical” even though it is supported by such large majorities of Americans.)

It may actually be good if this so-called public option dies, because it has already been so watered down in the health care bills coming out of the House that it might not achieve anything at all, other than giving public health insurance a bad name.

And on top of all that, the President and Congress want to mandate that everyone buy insurance, delivering us all, along with our money (whether paid individually or through a taxpayer-funded subsidy), to the tender mercies of the same private companies that helped create this massive problem to begin with. (And the president is using a faulty auto insurance analogy to support this. Sorry, but driving an auto is a privilege subject to all sorts of restrictions; health care is, or should be, a basic human right.) Not surprisingly, the individual mandate was the basic goal of the insurance industry all along, as it will force millions of new Americans to start giving them money.

As Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi, whose detailed and delightfully expletive-ridden expose can be read here, sums it all up:

“First, they gave away single-payer before a single gavel had fallen, apparently as a bargaining chip to the very insurers mostly responsible for creating the crisis in the first place. Then they watered down the public option so as to make it almost meaningless, while simultaneously beefing up the individual mandate, which would force millions of people now uninsured to buy a product that is no longer certain to be either cheaper or more likely to prevent them from going bankrupt. The bill won’t make drugs cheaper, and it might make paperwork for doctors even more unwieldy and complex than it is now. In fact, the various reform measures suck so badly that PhRMA, the notorious mouthpiece for the pharmaceutical industry which last year spent more than $20 million lobbying against health care reform, is now gratefully spending more than seven times that much on a marketing campaign to help the president get what he wants.”

Nothing President Obama said last night, however momentarily inspiring, changes any of this.

Mr. Obama ended his speech with an emotional appeal to what he called “fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.” Regrettably, the plan he is offering does not support fundamental principles of social justice, and the only thing it says about the character of our country is that we still have a government thoroughly controlled by wealthy corporate interests.

If this plan passes it may take us a few years to figure that out. But we will figure it out, because this legislation will not fix our health care crisis. You can count on it.


3 Responses to “After the Cheering Subsides, What Was Actually in Obama’s Speech?”

  1. Jan Morales Says:

    Obama serves big business, plain and simple. He is happy to give the American people anything they want, so long as big business approves of it first.

    Don’t expect much…

  2. Mary Jane Says:

    Please explain what single-payer health care means? If it means we all only have government issued insurance, I don’t think the majority of U.S. citizens approve.

  3. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Agree with you about Obama’s speech — he artfully declared the “public option” expendable, when that was (in my view) the necessary minimum for real reform. He was so artful that people at a pro “public option” rally today could be persuaded to cheer about Obama’s speech. #obamadisappointsagain.

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