Why Health-Care Reform Will Survive

PHOTOS: How Obamacare Will Affect You Michael Reynolds / EPA-Corbis

Conservatives who voted for congressional candidates because they pledged to repeal and replace the health-care-reform law are in for a rude awakening. Once those newly elected members of Congress have a little talk with the insurance industry’s lobbyists and executives, they will back off from that pledge. They will go through the motions, of course. They’ll hold hearings and take to the floor of both Houses to rail against the new law, and they’ll probably even introduce a bill to repeal it with much fanfare—but it will all be for show. That’s because health insurers, one of Republican candidates’ biggest and most reliable benefactors—the industry contributed three times as much money to Republicans as to Democrats since January—can’t survive without it.

Despite all the attacks on “Obamacare,” the new law props up the employer-based system that insurers and large corporations benefit from so greatly. It also guarantees that private insurers will get billions of dollars in new revenue. And the insurers won’t have to share a penny of that windfall with a government-run public option the president once said was necessary “to keep insurers honest.”

I know what the insurers are thinking because, not long ago, I was on their side. I am sorry to admit it, but over nearly two decades I had a hand in planning the industry’s PR and public-policy strategies to either kill or shape any health-care reform proposal that might hinder profits. I was part of the strategic-communications team that planned and carried out the successful attack on the Clinton plan in the 1990s as well as the one that killed the patients’ bill of rights a few years later. I left my job handling communications for Cigna in 2008 because I didn’t have the stomach to be part of yet another spin campaign to cheat Americans out of the reform they needed.

For months before I left my job, I worked closely with my counterparts at the other big insurers to develop the list of must-haves our well-connected army of lobbyists would take to Capitol Hill when lawmakers began drafting reform legislation. Despite their public statements to the contrary, insurance companies really liked much of what was in both House and Senate versions of the bill—big chunks of which they actually wrote behind the scenes—especially the requirement that all Americans buy insurance if they’re not eligible for an existing public program like Medic-aid or Medicare.

During the reform debate, the industry’s deception-based PR strategy had two active fronts. One was a highly visible charm offensive designed to create an image of the industry as an advocate for reform and a good-faith partner with the president and lawmakers in achieving it. The second was a secret fearmongering campaign using shadowy “AstroTurf” groups and business and political allies as shills to disseminate misinformation and lies—like the one about the creation of “death panels”—with the sole intent of killing any reform that might hurt the bottom line.

Although I was ashamed of many of the things I did during my career, I didn’t plan to speak out about the industry’s devious practices until I saw Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, tell President Obama at the end of his March 2009 White House Forum on Health Reform, “You have our commitment to play, to contribute, and to help pass health-care reform this year.” Then I knew the industry’s disingenuous charm offensive had begun. Soon after that I read that, Aetna chairman and CEO Ron Williams, the driving force behind the industry’s effort to get the individual mandate enacted, had met with the president half a dozen times. I knew Williams was trying to persuade the president to drop his insistence on the public option and to embrace the individual mandate. Sure enough, Williams got his wish.

It is ironic, of course, that the requirement to purchase insurance has become the centerpiece of Republicans’ condemnation of the new law and their court challenge of its constitutionality. Insurers have no reason to worry, however, because they fare very well when the Republicans are in charge. Their profits soared—as did the number of Americans who are uninsured and underinsured—during the Bush years and Republican control of Congress.

The real reason insurers want the GOP leading Congress again is not to repeal “Obamacare,” but to try to gut some of the provisions of the law that protect consumers from the abuses of the industry, such as refusing to cover kids with preexisting conditions, canceling policyholders’ coverage when they get sick, and setting annual and lifetime limits on how much they’ll pay for medical care. Insurers also hate the provision that requires them to spend at least 80 percent of premium revenues on medical care, as well as the one that calls for eliminating the billions of dollars that the government has been overpaying them for years to participate in private Medicare plans. (Be on the lookout for a death panel–like fearmongering campaign to scare people into thinking, erroneously, that Granny and Pawpaw will lose their government health care if Congress doesn’t restore those “cuts” to Medicare.)

Insurers are not waiting for all their new members of Congress to be sworn in to get what they want. They and their big-business allies are already pressuring the Obama administration to waive or delay the implementation of provisions they don’t like, all the while working behind the scenes not only to protect the individual mandate but to have the government enforce it with much greater gusto. The one thing the industry didn’t like about the mandate provision was that the penalties for not buying their overpriced products won’t inflict nearly enough financial pain.

Retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who once had been a part of the repeal-and-replace brigade, provoked the wrath of conservative pundits shortly before the midterm elections when he said, in a moment of unguarded candor, that repealing the law was not realistic. Instead, he said, the GOP should focus on “retooling” it. You can be certain that insurance-industry lobbyists will be helping their newly expanded congressional caucus determine what needs retooling. As my former Cigna colleague Bill Hoagland, the company’s top lobbyist, told the As-sociated Press a few days ago: “If you ended up repealing [the individual mandate], the whole thing blows up. It doesn’t work. The cost would explode.” In other words, feel free to repeal those pesky consumer protections, but keep your hands off our mandate.

Potter is a senior analyst at The Center for Public Integrity. This piece is based on his book Deadly Spin, published this week by Bloomsbury Press.

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