August Offensive to Define Health Care Debate: Insurance Companies in the Bull's Eye

This August, Progressives have no intention of being bowled over by the assault of the "insurance gang." There are four reasons why we are likely to prevail.
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A potentially decisive battle to define this year's health care debate -- and the Obama Presidency -- will take place in town hall meetings, little league bleaches, and conversations on door steps near you during the August Congressional recess.

The White House, its Congressional allies, and progressive organizations supporting health care reform have launched a new August offensive to write the narrative of the health care debate. The story line is clear: on the one side are America's health care consumers. On the other are the eight private health insurance companies that dominate the health insurance market, who are doing so much to deep-six the health insurance reform that America so desperately needs.

Americans United for Change (for which I am General Consultant) helps kick off this offensive today with a new TV spot that begins to personalize the private health insurance industry. It asks the question: Why do the health insurance companies and Republicans want to kill President Obama's health insurance reform? It answers with the tale of H. Edward Hanway, the CEO of giant Cigna Insurance.

Hanway made $12.2 million as CEO of Cigna last year. Sometimes that kind of number just rolls off the tongue. But someone who makes $12.2 million is making $5,883 per hour. He makes 30 times more than the CEO of the federal government -- the president. He makes more in one day than the average American worker makes all year long.

And that's not all. Hanway just announced he will be retiring at year's end. For his retirement, H. Edward will get a good deal more than a gold watch. He will get a golden parachute worth $73 million. Probably a fair amount more than the guy who runs Medicare, don't you think?

The private insurance industry is pretty crazed about a health insurance reform plan that will require them to compete with a public health insurance option focused on covering everyone and controlling costs, instead of making off with fortunes.

They would love to see a plan that requires the taxpayers to reach into their jeans and plunk down hundreds of billions more dollars as long as they could continue to skim their take off an ever-exploding national health care bill. They would love to have the government require that everyone must buy their health care insurance. But the idea of competing with a public plan that forces efficiency, drives down the industry's growing profit margins and gives consumers an option other than the oligopoly of eight major health insurance firms? They think that is a terrible idea.

They feel the same way towards a public health insurance option that the local mob boss feels about some interloper who tries to cut into the piece of the action he takes from the bookies operating within his turf.

So, like the local mob boss, they will be pulling out all the stops in August to terrorize members of Congress and sow fear and confusion about the Obama Health Insurance Reform plan. They will run ads. They will make copious political contributions. They will provide ammunition to the right-wing talk show hosts. They will do everything in their power to stop the Obama plan dead in its tracks, because they know that once people have a new health insurance system, there will be no going back.

But this August, Progressives have no intention of being bowled over by the assault of the "insurance gang." Progressives have learned the lesson of 1994, and this time we will go right at them. There are four reasons why we are likely to prevail:

•The polling shows clearly that most people agree that the health insurance industry has worn out its welcome with Americans. Since 1994, there have simply been too many people denied coverage for pre-existing conditions, or told that they are no longer covered because they have gotten a serious illness, or gouged so that H. Edward Hanway can have a $73 million retirement package. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that something's wrong with the health insurance industry when premiums go up three times faster than wages and 14,000 people a day are losing their health insurance, yet insurance industry profits still keep going up in the midst of a horrible recession.

•Even though the health insurance industry has more resources than we do, it is also true that it costs less to convince people that what is good for them is good for them, than it does to convince people that what is bad for them is good for them.

•We have a president and Democratic leadership in Congress willing to make the case against the insurance companies in stark, clear terms.

•Well-organized progressive coalitions like Health Care for America Now (HCAN), and Obama's field operation -- Organize for America -- have been preparing for this engagement for months. They have been accumulating resources, testing public opinion, organizing grassroots field operations -- all in preparation for this decisive battle.

Now the insurance gang has shown its hand. Of all of the "stakeholders" in the health care industry, it is the one that is prepared to sink health care reform if change threatens its ability to siphon off billions of dollars into the bank accounts of the H. Edward Hanway's of the world.

This month let's all look carefully at the way the H. Edward Hanway's live. Let's contemplate whether the fortunes of a few are worth the continued suffering of 43 million Americans who worry everyday that they might fall seriously ill -- or be injured driving home -- and be bankrupted by their health care bills.

Let's ponder whether we should protect those fortunes, even though by doing so we continue to pay 50% more per person for health care than any other country on Earth, for outcomes that rank 37th in the world.

Let's put ourselves in the shoes of the woman who testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who had paid her health care premiums for years and had her policy "rescinded" (cancelled) on a technicality after she got cancer. When asked if they could guarantee that their companies would not continue to "rescind" policies in the future, the insurance company representatives refused to do so. Wouldn't want to cut into H. Edward's $5,883 per hour pay check, after all.

During the month of August, let's make sure that the topic of conversation at every bar stool, kitchen table and barber shop is the health insurance industry and the small group of people who profit from its fine print and monopoly practices.

Much of the health insurance industry's power is its ability to pull the strings of politicians from behind the curtain. Like Count Dracula, another famous baron who was good at siphoning off other people's assets, the health insurance industry does a lot better if it is not exposed to daylight.

In the next four weeks, let's light up the health insurance industry like Yankee Stadium on an August night.

If we all do that, when the game is over, after decades of struggle, America's consumers will finally come out as winners.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on

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