Doctors, nurses arrested protesting health plan

By David Hoskins

NYC chapter of FIST

Thirteen doctors, nurses and activists were arrested in Washington, D.C., throughout the month of May. The protesters were detained on different days for interrupting the Senate Finance Committee roundtable on health care to protest the exclusion of single-payer advocates from the hearings on reform.

Among those arrested were Margaret Flowers, M.D., co-chair of the Maryland chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program; Russell Mokhiber, founder of Single Payer Action; and Katie Robbins, an assistant national coordinator of Healthcare-NOW.

The roundtable, chaired by Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, has so far included 15 representatives of insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and hospital corporations. Doctors, nurses and patients’ rights advocates have yet to be included in the discussions. Sen. Baucus has publicly stated that the single-payer option is off the table.

The exclusion of the single-payer point of view stands in opposition to the sentiment of the majority of U.S. physicians, 59 percent of whom have stated their support for national health insurance legislation as indicated in the April 2008 Annals of Internal Medicine.

Democrats’ plan threatens employee benefits

House and Senate Democrats have indicated that a new tax on employer-provided health insurance is an option to help raise the $1.2 trillion they will need to finance their plan. Their pricey plan only tinkers around the edges of the real problems in health care—the profit motive in general and health insurance industry greed in particular.

The Washington Post reported on May 22 that closed-door meetings of the Senate Finance Committee have secured support for a medical benefits tax from a surprising number of lawmakers. White House officials have repeatedly stated that all financing options are on the table, implying that a health benefits tax could win administration support.

Baucus has suggested the possibility of taxing coverage for all workers with benefits valued above the national average of $13,000 for family coverage. One problem with this proposal is that it would unfairly single out union workers who have quality plans that include dental care, vision benefits and low co-payments.

Health Care for America Now, a coalition of union and community organizations, has pointed out that Congress should be finding ways to provide those quality benefits to everyone, not penalizing unionized workers who have fought for and won the health care coverage they deserve.

Budget director attacks Medicare

Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that health care cost reduction would result in higher quality care. If Orszag had meant that skyrocketing health insurance and pharmaceutical industry profits have driven up costs to the point that it seriously threatens patient lives, most workers would agree.

Orszag’s statement about cutting costs, however, is not a reference to trimming the wallets of health industry executives. The statement instead appears to be aimed at reducing the costs per enrollee for Medicare and Medicaid recipients.

Orszag wants federal budget analysts, commonly derided as “bean counters,” to determine what tests and procedures are considered excessive and subject to cuts. He also attacked allegedly lengthy hospital stays in some regions as another source of unnecessary expense.

Orszag maintains that intensive testing and hospitalization do not provide better health outcomes. This concentration on reducing these aspects of Medicare coverage is interesting in light of recent findings in the New England Journal of Medicine.

An April 2 study found that a third of all Medicare patients are readmitted to the hospital within 90 days after being discharged. More than two-thirds of patients who had been discharged with a medical condition, and half of those who had been discharged after a surgical procedure, were rehospitalized or died within the first year following their discharge.

Orszag’s logic ignores the fact that readmission rates are the prevalent and costly result of inadequate care in the first place. It appears that Medicare recipients are being denied the quality tests, procedures and hospital stays they need. The financial cost of this phenomenon exceeds $17 billion a year according to the article. The human cost can be death. Either way, this is not the health care reform voters signed up for at the polls in November.

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