Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Public Option is dead as a Doornail

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and a parade of House and Senate Democrats should get academy awards for their play act on the public heath care option. It’s as dead as a doornail. Yet, the principal players still tease the public with their talk about it. The public option epitaph was written months ago during the more than two dozen secret meetings that Obama and his aides had with the insurance industry and pharmaceutical bigwigs.
The deal went like this. The major insurers and the pharmaceuticals would drop their seven decade opposition to health care reform if the Obama administration did four things. It must guarantee that the estimated 45 to 50 million uninsured would buy insurance from the private health insurers with penalties for non-compliance. The mandate would guarantee the insurers a monopoly on a product that would make the old 19th Century Robber Barons green with envy. The government (taxpayers) after delivering them would then pay the cost to cover many of them with billions in subsidies. This is a treasure trove of untold riches for the insurers. Minimal (or no) checks on what private insurers charge and no real way to compel them not to dump those they deem to sick, too poor and too undesirable to insure.
The elimination of the public option, though, sealed the deal. Obama could pay lip service to the public option but not fight for it. The lip service was important solely to keep labor unions, progressives, and liberal Democrats in tow. They were the ones who turned the presidential campaign into a holy crusade to put him in the White House. With 2010 midterm elections near any hint that the White House had cut a deal to scrap the public option will stir wholesale revolt by the left side of the Democratic Party. All factions have made it clear that a health care bill without a public option is a sham. They speak for the majority of Americans. Every poll and survey including a mid October Washington Post poll has found that the public solidly backs a public option.

The double cross by America’s Health Insurance Plans, the private health insurer’s industry group, which commissioned a study that claimed that private insurers would have to jack up prices and families would pay through the nose for health care if the reform bill passed didn’t change the deal. It actually strengthened it. A few days after the industry’s blatant blackmail, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel again reiterated that a public option was not ”the defining piece of health care.” This was a wink and nod to the industry that the White House would keep its part of the bargain no matter the trickery, skullduggery, or lies from the industry.

The fall guy for the play acting has been Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus. He’s been hectored, cat called, finger pointed, and raked over the coals for supposedly single-handedly torpedoing the public option. Baucus just took his cue from the White House. When the deal was cut, he had the green light to craft a reform bill that is firmly within the parameters of the industry guidelines the White House rubber stamped months earlier. There can be no deviation from that. As agreed, the public option was nowhere to be found in his plan. It was never a part of the round-the-clock negotiations the key players on the finance committee engaged in to nail down the fine points of the bill.

Only the most hopelessly naïve can be surprised by the White House and Capitol Hill play acting. Obama desperately needs to knock down a win on health care reform, no matter how much of an industry giveaway it is. He’s heard the loud grumbles from progressives and liberal Democrats that he is way too quick to make nice with the GOP on comprehensive heath care reform. His soft shoe of the public option is their single biggest point of displeasure with him.
Some progressives will scream sell-out and flip-flopper at him when he signs the final bill sans a public option.

It won’t much matter. Their criticism will be buried in the avalanche of media publicity, a blitz of laudatory industry accolades, and congressional back patting when Obama signs the gutted final bill and declares it the greatest victory for health care reform since LBJ inked Medicare into law four decades ago.
The major provisions of the reform bill won’t kick in for years down the line. In that time, memories will have long since faded as millions remain uninsured, private insurers continue to rake in their grotesque profits, and the promised cost savings from reform never materialize. A true public option was the obvious answer to this. But when the insurers, pharmaceuticals and the White House agreed to play act on it it was dead as a doornail.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January, 2010.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Insurers Royally Played Obama

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

In the months after President Obama’s inauguration, he and other administration officials held more than two dozen secret meetings with top insurers and the major pharmaceutical groups. He met with registered lobbyist Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, the major private insurer’s industry group, on March 5, 6 and 11, May 11 and June 30.
The meeting with AHIP and the other industry bigwigs was followed by a much public and much ballyhooed pledge by the private insurers and the pharmaceuticals to plough tens of millions of dollars into an ad and PR blitz to back Obama’s health care reform plan. They solemnly and very publicly assured that they’d work closely with Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus and his five other gang of five cohorts on the Committee to not be the hard headed obstructionists they’d been for the past six decades to getting health care reform passed. Obama bought their pledge, back patted them for their spirit of cooperation, and publicly hailed them for promising to break down the final barrier, namely themselves, to providing affordable health care to all Americans.
The insurers hustled, conned and lied to Obama. They cynically played upon his political naiveté about them. Worse, they didn’t even try to mask their play of him. AHIP brazenly fired off to the press a study it commissioned that claimed that Obama’s health care reform plan would hike the cost of insurance for families by thousands. The insurers insisted that private employers would get hit even harder with the increased fees, taxes, and add-on costs in the reform plan. They swore that would cause many employers to reduce or even eliminate coverage for their employees. The insurers doubled down on their play of Obama by threatening to spend a fortune on an ad campaign to kill his plan.

The worst part of the insurers con game is that they had already squeezed a guaranteed profit bonanza out of the White House and the Senate Finance Committee—no public option, government enforced mandates complete with penalties, taxpayer subsidies of the poor and middle class uninsured, forced employer mandated plans, and best of all absolutely no meaningful government hammer over them to make sure that they don’t raise prices or figure out ways to dump those who private insurers label “high risk” or less charitably, “undesirables” at the first chance they get. Those are the millions who suffer chronic and major diseases—cancer, diabetes, asthma and heart disease. The overwhelming majority of them are blacks and Latinos and the poor.
Covering them was supposed to be the reason that Obama and congress battled for reform in the first place. The issue for private insurers even as they made nice with the White House and deceived Obama into thinking that he had a deal with them has never changed. It’s still their endemic fear of any smattering of government control of medical care.
The hint that insurers would double cross the White House the first chance they got was Obama’s mere mention that he’d impose higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for coverage of the uninsured. This stirred terror among insurers and medical industry groups of deficit soaring taxes and socialized medicine. The even bigger hint was the even more terrifying to them thought that congress might actually impose cost containment measures into whatever reform package that finally emerged from congress. This would directly threaten what insurers regard as their absolute right to make and keep the kings ransom in profits they’ve raked in seemingly forever. This drove them to the barricades the past six decades even faster than their phony, self-serving scare shout that health care reform is socialized medicine.
Obama learned an age old and bitter lesson from the insurer’s double cross. When you try to buy your enemies affection you can never be rich enough. The insurers royally played Obama.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January, 2010.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Is a Huge Stretch

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Publicly President Obama said all the right things when he got word that the Nobel committee awarded him its jewel in the crown peace prize. But privately I have to think that Obama had to scratch his head and wonder why me? With all due respect to the president, while we can applaud his admirable effort to mildly reverse Bush’s kick butt, my way or the highway, foreign adventurism policy that ticked off the European allies, enraged the Muslim world, and blew off Latin America, awarding him the Nobel peace prize this early in his White House tenure is a huge stretch.

The three other presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter that won the prize had done more than barely warm the Oval Office seat when they got their award. The most recent, Carter, worked tirelessly to bring the warring Palestinian and Israelis to the peace table and because of his efforts actually obtained a break in the hostilities. This was a tangible, measurable and singular accomplishment, and he deserved the prize for not his efforts at peace and reconciliation but the actual attainment of a degree of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. Even worse, Obama has done his bit of war waging. He has not damped down the American war machine in Iraq, and threatens to ramp up the war machine in Afghanistan. That’s hardly an example of peace making at its best.

The Nobel Prize winners in science, medicine and literature were mostly unknowns who spent years laboring in the shadows to produce milestone achievements in their respective fields. The award was not given to them because of their public popularity, mediagenic appeal, or their title (president), they got the prize for their long, and hard work that produced measurable, tangible and specific results.
Obama in the ridiculously short length of time he’s been in the White House has not gotten Iran’s leaders to firmly commit to hold talks on their nuclear testing program. He has not gotten North Korea to stand down in its nuclear weapons program. He has not brokered a lasting peace treaty between the warring factions in the Congo. He has not gotten Pakistan to seal its porous borders with Afghanistan that would choke off stop support, supply and the safe haven for the Taliban insurgents. He has not hectored the Israeli government to crackdown on settlement expansion on the West Bank and Gaza. He has not even pushed Congress to scrap the most repressive, loathful and patently unconstitutional features of the Bush’s anti-terrorist policies.

Any one of these singular and very measurable accomplishments would be considered major breakthroughs on the peace front. If he had obtained one or more of them, he would have richly deserved the peace prize for the accomplishment.
In the years to come Obama may well accomplish one or more of these stellar achievements. But he hasn’t yet. Simply awarding a young president, with lots of time left in his White House tenure to do truly great things in the battle for world peace, a prize for his mostly verbal efforts on the peace front, is not a stretch, but a huge stretch.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January, 2010.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Chicago Beating Death Shocks White House—But Now What?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

There’s an outsized map of Chicago on the wall of the office of the Black Star Project. In the center of the map there’s the letter "A". The letter is the Chicago home of the Obamas. The “A” is surrounded by yellow stickers that make the map look like the bullseye of a dart board. The analogy is deadly fitting because each one of the stickers represents a child under age 18 who was murdered.
The victims were all African-American, and outside of their grieving families and friends, a brief mention in the local press, and the pleas from a handful of local activists to do something about the carnage, their deaths drew barely a ripple of media and public attention. The yellow stickers circling Obama’s home are no aberration. In the past year more than 40 young persons have beeen murdered in Chicago, many within a stone’s throw of the President’s home. A three year study of murders in the city found that young black males in the most impoverished parts of the city were 30 times more likely to be murdered than young white males living in white areas.

It took the cell phone video of 16 year-old Derrion Albert being bludgeoned to death on a Chicago street to momentarily at least change that. Obama will deplore the violence, Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will propose ramped up spending on education youth education and violence prevention programs and anti-gang violence initiatives, and with much media fanfare there’ll be a round-up or two of alleged gang members.

But as in the past the flashy, new initiatives, unveiled after much public anguish over a particular heinous killing, may again fizzle out due to lack of money, lack of political will to push them through, or lack of practicality. Increased dollars alone, Holder’s and Duncan’s inner-city treks, and moral finger wag, will do little to stop the killing. Many of the young men that tuck guns in their waistbands and shoot-up their neighborhoods or beat to death an honors student feel that no one cares whether they live or die. Their belief that their lives are devalued fosters disrespect for the law and forces them to internalize anger and displace aggression onto others.

Many of them, mostly young black and Latino males, have become especially adept at acting out their frustrations at white society's denial of their "manhood" by adopting an exaggerated "tough guy" role. They swagger, boast, curse, fight and commit violent self-destructive acts. The accessibility of drugs, and guns, and the influence of misogynist, violent-laced rap songs also reinforce the deep feeling among many youth that life is cheap and easy to take, and there will be minimal consequences for their action as long as their victims are other young blacks or Latinos. And as long as the attackers regard their victims, such as Albert, as weak, vulnerable, and easy pickings they will continue to kill and maim with impunity.
The other powerful ingredient in the deadly mix of youth violence is the drug plague. Drug trafficking not only provides illicit profits but also makes the violence even more widespread. The innocent victims that are caught in gang shoot-outs thus further fortifying the conviction that inner city streets are depraved war zones.

It's not just drugs and hopelessness that drive young men, especially young black men to kill. The huge state and federal cutbacks in job training and skills programs, the brutal competition for low and semi skilled service and retail jobs from immigrants, and the refusal of many employers to hire those with criminal records have sledge hammered black communities. The unemployment rate of young black males is double and in some parts of the country, triple that of white males. The high number of miserably failing inner-city public schools also fuels the unemployment crisis. They have turned thousands of blacks into educational cripples. These students are desperately unequipped to handle the rapidly evolving and demanding technical and professional skills in the public sector and the business world of the 21st Century. The educational meltdown has seeped into the colleges. According to an American Council of Education report, in the past decade Latino, Asian, and black female student enrollment has soared while black male enrollment has plunged.

There's no magic formula to stop the violence. Federal and state officials must drastically increase funds for violence prevention and gang intervention programs. They must call on educators, health professionals, drug counselors, and gang intervention activists to devise and provide the crucial resources for more programs to keep at risk youth off the streets. The Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Democrats must continue to challenge the Obama administration and corporations to do more to end discrimination and create more job and training opportunities for young blacks.
It took the shock and horror of Derrion’s murder to shake up a president and a nation. The real test is when the shock passes will the White House continue to do what needs to be done to prevent other Derrion Albert’s from meeting the same fate.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January, 2010.