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Political Animal

Poor Health

By Brian Morton | Posted 9/23/2009

One of the most stunning parts of the debate about health-care reform is how often the plight of the poor gets shut out of the discussion.

This is understandable, if still unconscionable. If the squeaky wheel gets the grease, then the wealthy own the wheel, the tires, the car, most of the roads, and a percentage of the tolls. Powerful corporate interests and Wall Street control so much of the dialogue due to political contributions and media ownership that there is virtually no chance that those who most desperately need health care get to have a voice.

Consider that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the main shepherd of the health-care bill in the Senate, has been the recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from health-care and insurance-related corporations such as Schering-Plough, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, New York Life, and Aetna in the last five years. By some strange coincidence, Baucus is the main Democratic proponent of stripping a public option out of any bill that passes the Senate, claiming it will never pass.

Yet support for a public option still has more than a majority among voters (62 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll) and among 63 percent of doctors, according to a poll conducted by Salomeh Keyhani and Alex Federman of Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

When it comes right down to it, what drives the loudest arguments against a public option is simple greed. Health care in this country, as opposed to nearly every other modern industrialized nation, is built on profit. Take in lots of money, pay out as little as possible, and pocket the difference in the form of profits and dividends.

How else can you explain the insurance companies' practice of rescissions? "Rescissions" are the practice of finding supposed pre-existing conditions in order to deny coverage to customers who may have been paying thousands of dollars into a health-care plan, only to be denied when they actually need it. In eight states and the District of Columbia, being the subject of domestic violence-getting beaten up by your spouse-is considered to be a pre-existing condition and a reason for denial of coverage.

In 2006, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wa.) tried to ban the practice only to have the 10 Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee march in lockstep to kill her amendment. Republicans defended the vote, claiming that if it passed, Murray's bill would have made health insurance cost more and thus make it harder for more people to be covered.

Their concern for the poor is noted, if obviously somewhat laced with crocodile tears. These are the same Republicans who ensured, during the Medicare reform-bill debate in 2003, that voters wouldn't learn about the real cost of the bill until after it passed; the fight over it included an eventual FBI investigation into whether GOP Rep. Nick Smith of Michigan was offered a bribe on the House floor in the form of a campaign contribution to his son.

When Democrats and Republicans team up on behalf of the health-insurance industry, is it any wonder that it would be an all-out war against the poor in order to keep a public option off the table? Despite the results of the last presidential election, America remains a country where the right for the wealthy to fleece the poor is almost sacrosanct.

Let us never forget that back in the salad days of George W. Bush's first term, The Wall Street Journal called the poor "lucky duckies" because of their low share of the nation's tax burden, as if paying little in income taxes (as opposed to the unmentioned yet incredibly regressive burden of payroll taxes) was the worst thing about having little income.

In a May Washington Post article on the cost of being poor, Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon summed up fairly simply why it's harder to be poor:

The poor pay more for a gallon of milk; they pay more on a capital basis for inferior housing . . . The poor and 100 million who are struggling for the middle class actually end up paying more for transportation, for housing, for health care, for mortgages. They get steered to subprime lending . . . The poor pay more for things middle-class America takes for granted.

At the same time as the poor keep getting poorer, subject to financial predation from banks, the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry, and everyone from grocers to gas stations, Democrats like Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas will team up with Republicans to try and cut the estate tax and lower the top rate millionaires pay from 45 percent to 35 percent. You wouldn't think of Arkansas as a haven for refugee millionaires desperate to get away from Wall Street and New York's high tax rates, but you have to remember, it's also the home of Wal-Mart's Walton family.

Just think: If a state with as many poor as Arkansas still has a friend to millionaires like Lincoln in the Senate, how do you think other states will fare when it comes time to protect the interests of the wealthy? And when it comes to health care, making money on the poor is like owning shares in a casino. And which Senate millionaire will turn down a chance to have a piece of that?

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