Weekly Pulse: Health Insurers Banking on Tea Party to Poison Election

Posted Oct 6, 2010 @ 10:43 am by
Filed under: Health Care     Bookmark and Share

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The health insurance industry is spending millions to influence the implementation of health care reform, but thanks to a groundbreaking Supreme Court decision and lax campaign finance laws, the public record only reflects a fraction of total expenditures.

The Republican and Democratic parties are on track to spend a record-breaking $500 million dollars on the midterm elections with the help of corporations, unions, and the health insurance industry. The New York Times says that, thanks to the proliferation of opaque 501(c)4 groups, this election is shaping up to be “the most secretive since Watergate.”

Money in politics is hazardous to our political health. Symptoms of campaign finance poisoning include compulsive lying, combativeness, confusion, amnesia, and paranoia. The patient may become convinced that he or she is being stalked by a “death panel.” Epidemiologists don’t know exactly what level of cash exposure is safe for democracy, but everyone agrees that the U.S. is subjecting itself to untested doses of political money.

Health industry gives millions to Tea Party Caucus

The insurance industry has quietly shifted its political giving to massively favor pro-repeal Republicans, and health care providers are now the biggest backers the of the Tea Party Caucus, which is pledging to repeal health care reform, Lee Fang reports in AlterNet. The industry has given over $2.7 million to Republican members of the newly minted ultra-conservative caucus.

The insurers are also sinking big bucks into a $25 million slush fund that will sponsor attack ads against Democrats in 20 House races and a handful of Senate contests. The slush fund is a 501(c)4 group lead by Republican lobbyist Scott Reed.

“Citizens United opened the door for the unparalleled participation by corporations at the financial level,” Reed told a reporter. Citizen’s United is the recent Supreme Court decision that gave companies the right to spend unlimited amounts of their shareholder’s money to run attack ads. Before, companies could only spend money that employees donated to the company PAC and that was subject to limits. We can only speculate which companies are giving to Reed’s group. Since it’s a 501(c)4 and not a PAC, it doesn’t have to disclose its donors.

Fang says its unclear whether the donations to the Tea Party Caucus and the slush fund are part of the $20 million “war chest” that insurance giants UnitedHealth, WellPoint, Humana Inc., Aetna Inc. and Cigna Corp are rumored to be setting aside to influence the implementation of health care reform.

About that mandate…

The insurance industry is spending millions to elect members of the Tea Party Caucus and other Republicans who are promising to repeal the universal mandate, i.e., the stipulation that everyone has to carry health insurance.

Ironically, as Kevin Drum points out in Mother Jones, the mandate is one part of health care reform that the insurance industry loves. What corporation wouldn’t like a law that forces everyone to buy their product? What the insurers don’t like, Drum explains, are the regulations that prevent insurers from weeding out unprofitable customers. Even the pro-repeal Republicans are promising to keep popular provisions of health care reform that ban discrimination against people with preexisting conditions. In Drum’s view, the industry probably wouldn’t be giving millions of dollars to the GOP if they thought the Republicans were serious about repealing the individual mandate. He thinks it’s more likely that the Republicans plan to keep the mandate and scrap the popular consumer protections.

Mini plans, maxi ripoffs

Meanwhile, McDonald’s and 30 other employers including a New York teacher’s union will get a special waiver from the federal government to keep ultra-low benefits caps for their cheap health insurance plans. Ann Pietrangelo of Care2.net explains that McDonald’s currently offers so-called “mini plans” to its workers, but these plans run afoul of the Affordable Care Act because they spend too much on administration and too little on health care. The waiver means that McDonald’s can continue to cap benefits at $2000 for another year.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has launched an investigation into these mini plans to determine if they deliver value for the worker’s dollar. The McDonald’s plan costs $14 per week for a plan that caps benefits at a $2,000 a year, or $32 a week for up to $10,000 worth of coverage. At $14 a week, low-wage workers are paying $728 a year for a mere $2000 worth of coverage.

To give you some idea of what a ripoff that is, consider that the average employee who gets insurance through work kicks in about $4000 a year to insure her entire family. Benefit caps vary, but even a minimally acceptable family plan covers at least $100,000 per person, per year. Some plans don’t have yearly benefit caps. If McDonald’s and company hadn’t gotten the waivers, they would have been on the hook for up $75,000 worth of care above the benefits cap next year.

The yearly premiums of the $14/week plan are 36% of the maximum possible benefit. Whereas, if you’re paying $4000 a year for up to $400,000 in potential benefits for a family of four, your premiums add up to just 1% of the maximum payout. That’s a pretty lousy deal in itself, but not nearly as bad as McDonald’s mini-plan.

USA: Uh, sorry we gave you syphilis

The researchers with the United States Public Health Service deliberately infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis as part of an experiment in the 1940s.

You’ve heard about the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment in which black men with syphilis were denied treatment for their disease so that researchers could study their decline and death, right? It turns out that one of the doctors behind the Tuskegee study got his start paying syphilis-infected prostitutes to have sex with prison and mental hospital inmates in Guatemala. When that proved an inefficient mode of transmission, the team tried inoculating their subjects with the pureed testicles of syphilitic rabbits. The researchers were trying to find a kind of “morning after pill” for syphilis. At least these unwitting “subjects” were treated with penicillin if they contracted syphilis. The Tuskegee victims weren’t so lucky.

Democracy Now! interviews Dr. Susan Rerverby, the medical historian who discovered long-buried records of the Guatemala program in the papers of one of the doctors involved in the Tuskegee study.  Reverby’s paper prompted official apologies to Guatemala from President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius.

Working sick, touching food

A new survey of restaurant workers by a restaurant employees’ advocacy group found that nearly 90% of respondents have no paid sick days. The investigators questioned over 4000 restaurant employees and conducted interviews with 240 employees and 240 employers in 8 states, according to Micah Uetricht of Working In These Times.

June Lindsey, an employee at Popeye’s fried chicken in Detroit, told her story to the investigators:

I could not call in sick because no work meant no money and I couldn’t afford it at that time. My kids were very young… Halfway through the day, the sneezing, coughing and runny nose got worse. I asked the manager, “I am really sick and need to go because I could make others sick…” She laughed and told me, “Try not to cough, then.”

So I had to work that day sick, and who knows how many customers I got sick… Later on all of us got sick one by one, and all this came from another worker that came to work sick like me, but was not allowed to leave work!

The study also found that nearly 90% of restaurant workers lacked health benefits of any kind.

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