Bloomington-area citizens who support universal health care should not count on their elected representatives in Congress for help. Republican Sen. Richard Lugar has publicly stated his opposition to any health care reform at this moment in history. Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh is economically beholden to the insurance and drug lobbies. And U.S. Reps. Baron Hill, D-Ninth, and Brad Ellsworth, D-Eighth, are both members of the congressional Blue Dog Coalition.
The Blue Dogs are a group of 52 conservative House Democrats, mostly from the South and Plains, who boast of their role in blocking President Barack Obama's goal of congressional votes on health care reform before the August recess. "The Blue Dogs have been successful in ensuring the House will have time to assess the committee products on health care reform, both in the House and the Senate, as there will be no vote on the House floor before August," they wrote in a July 29, 2009, statement.
Thus far during that recess, armed and dangerous right-wing vigilantes have hijacked the political debate, Big Med industries have poured tens of millions into "lobbying" for their interests and dishonest television advertising, and Republicans have hardened their resolve to defeat the Democrats' plans for a government-run "public option" for the uninsured and underinsured, similar to Medicare and the Veterans Administration programs.
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Last issue: Healthcare reform: For the people or the corporations?
As a consequence, the Obama administration has signaled its intentions to abandon efforts at a creating bipartisan legislation, according to an Aug. 18 story in the New York Times titled "Democrats Seem Set to Go It Alone on a Health Bill." The story's lead said: "Democrats now say they see little chance of the minority's cooperation in approving any overhaul, and are increasingly focused on drawing support for a final plan from within their own ranks."
And that, for better or worse, makes Hill and Bayh key players in the future of health-care reform in America.
The Blue Dogs list Hill, who represents Bloomington, as one of four members of its "Leadership Team." He's the co-chair for policy. And while he does not serve on the group's health care task force, his leadership position within the coalition makes him a key player, according to single-payer advocate Dr. Rob Stone, director of Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Care Plan.
But exactly where Hill will come down on reform is unclear. "It's hard to know exactly where Baron is right now," Stone said during an Aug. 4 interview.
Hill is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by California Democrat Henry Waxman. And he voted with the rest of the Democrats for a bill that contains a public option. And Stone said he recently heard Hill make a rather startling pronouncement. "I was at a fundraiser with Baron in early June sometime, where he said, in front of 20 or 30 folks, that eventually we need to get to a single-payer system."
In support of a Medicare-style, single-payer plan, Stone points to a study in the Dec. 26, 2007, study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that concludes many Americans' health improves when they reach 65 and get on Medicare. "Americans' health actually improves after their 65th birthday because they finally have access to some medical care once they get on Medicare," Stone said. "That's pretty bizarre."
He also cites a May 2009 article in the journal Health Affairs that concludes that Medicare beneficiaries report fewer problems and greater satisfaction with medical care than those under 65 with private insurance coverage.
During an Aug. 4 appearance on WFIU's Noon Edition, Hill said President Obama took a Medicare-style single payer off the table, and it has not been discussed in any of the congressional deliberations.
He said the bill passed out of the Waxman committee would require everyone to buy health insurance, and those who couldn't afford private insurance could purchase a public option through an "exchange setup" run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Those who can't afford to pay would be eligible for government subsidies.
When asked if health care was a right or a privilege, Hill said it's a right.
Bayh has been on the defensive regarding his role in the health care debate because his wife Susan sits on the board of directors for WellPoint, the nation's largest health insurance company, which is headquartered in Indianapolis.
"His wife Susan ... makes $330,000 a year, twice his salary as a senator of $160,000," Stone said. "And she's not just on the WellPoint board. I think she's on five or six other boards. She apparently makes over a million dollars a year for sitting on boards."
While some of them are communications companies, most are medically related one way or another, he said. "This is an obvious conflict of interest," he said.
According to a July 26 Indianapolis Star article, Susan Bayh was an attorney for the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company while her husband was Indiana governor. Just before he was elected to the Senate in 1998, she joined the board of Anthem Inc. "Within a few years, numerous companies recruited her, and she eventually served on the boards of eight companies," the story continued. In December 2004, Anthem merged with WellPoint Health Networks Inc.
The Star story continued, "It's hard to find a company with more at stake in the health-care debate than Indianapolis-based WellPoint."
Susan Bayh has refused to talk to the media about the conflict, the article said. Evan Bayh has said there is no conflict.
Stone said, the Bayhs want the public to believe they "don't talk about it over the breakfast table."
A June 13 Star article quoted Sen. Bayh as saying he is "agnostic" on the issue of a public option.
Stone characterized Bayh's position: "'I'm playing my cards close to the vest,' which it seems to me is a way of saying, No. 1, 'I want people to fawn over me the way they do when you're undecided, you get a lot of attention,' and No. 2, 'I'm probably going to vote on whatever is best for WellPoint. But I'll try to avoid getting too much heat for that as long as I can avoid it.'"
Stone said Lugar replies to inquiries on health care reform with reasonable, thought-out letters. "But I'm sure he won't come around on health care," he said. "I just don't think he will at this point, but at some point in the future I'd like to see him do something reasonable."
"Democrats now say they see little chance of the minority's cooperation in approving any overhaul, and are increasingly focused on drawing support for a final plan from within their own ranks."- New York Times, Aug. 18
A statement on Lugar's Web site confirms he won't come around anytime soon. The nation, he says, simply has too many other priorities than to deal with health care reform now.
"President Obama and the Congress must recognize that the overwhelming demand of most Americans is that presidential and congressional leadership should focus each day on restoration of jobs, strengthening of housing opportunities, new growth in small business and large industries, and banks that are not only solvent but confident of normal lending," Lugar writes.
And even when those problems are addressed, he said, health care reform still may not be high on the list.
"After the economic recession in our country comes to a conclusion, a high priority may be extension of health insurance coverage and reform of many health care practices. When such changes occur, they are likely to be expensive and Americans will need to debate, even then, their priority in comparison to many other national goals."
Steven Higgs can be reached at .