Monday, August 24, 2009

Easily Conned?

Last Friday I traded in our ancient minivan to buy a new SUV under the highly popular "Cash for Clunkers" program.

As I was signing the final papers, the manager at the GM dealership lamented the bureaucratic wringer and technical glitches that have plagued the program. The government website (for uploading claims) would remain unavailable or keep crashing. Paperwork was tedious and claims were rejected for trivial reasons. Four weeks after filing the first claims the dealership had yet to receive any money.

"The government messes up everything, and now it's trying to take over our health care," said the auto manager. I asked him what he thought of the public option, and he said he is dead set against it.

That stopped me short. Here was someone who was (a) not a health provider or insurer, (b) not a $250K+ earner who would see taxes hiked up, and (c) not a lawmaker (Republican or Blue Dog Democrat) bribed by the industry to safeguard its interests. Moreover, he is in the business of selling new and used cars. That's someone who should be savvy enough to tell facts from fiction.

Yet even he swallowed the industry claims and counter-arguments against reform. He objected to the public option because his employer may then drop his private insurance (why should it matter if the public plan is better, or he can still see the same doctors?) When asked about the popular Medicare for seniors, and why not offer it to all Americans, he said Medicare will be out of funds (if it's cheaper, the funding is just a matter of allocating enough to it.)

This underscores just how easy it can be for reform opponents to confuse (or sucker) the average Joe about changes to the system. The Obama administration certainly hasn't helped with its mixed and conflicting messages on its commitment to the public option.

It doesn't have to be this way. Here's a link I received from Jonathan Starr of an MSNBC "Morning Joe" discussion between Republican host Joe Scarborough and Congressman Anthony Weiner (D - NY). Weiner advocates a single payer system and his logic for it even gets Scarborough (to his credit) thinking hard and admitting he's impressed "and speechless." Why isn't Mr. Obama making this case?

Paul Krugman has criticized Obama in today's Op-Ed in The Times. He also repeats that "Reaganomics has failed to deliver what it promised, yet people still believe that government intervention is bad, and leaving the private sector to its own devices is good."

A remarkable national survey result also shows that a majority of Americans believe most of the 19 myths floated by reform opponents.

Republicans also have some (a few, I wish they had more) good ideas on health reforms that are being ignored by Democrats. Chief among these is the need for malpractice reforms. It may bring down some health care costs, or at least remove one major reason (or excuse) advanced by providers for high costs.

Then there are reforms that neither party stresses, like vastly expanding the supply of doctors and other providers, and curbing hospital market power. A reason reforms are so difficult is that each interest group has powerful leverage and lawmakers protecting them. Strong public demand can pressure the politicians to do the right thing. For this to happen President Obama needs to stop being so passive and overlearning from the Clintons' 1993 experience. He should instead imagine how Hillary would act now if she were in his place.

And Americans like my auto dealer need to better judge industry claims.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sell-Out By Obama?

In the past day or so I've been struck by three news items about health reforms.

First, former DNC Chairman Howard Dean flatly stated in a TV interview that health reforms without a public option were not worth having.

Second, the New York Times today carried an Op-Ed by President Obama himself on the need for health reforms. He seemed to want everyone on board with it, touting support by provider groups including the AMA. But that may just be the problem.

Third, as also reported in the NYT the White House in its anxiety to pass any type of health reform package seems ready to compromise by dropping the call for a public insurance option. “The public option, whether we have it or we don’t have it, is not the entirety of health care reform” Mr. Obama said. “This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it.”

Actually, the public option is a huge deal, given that the government buying clout is needed to counter the market power of providers controlling scarce resources or facing little competition. Without it the cost-containment component of health reforms suffers a severe setback even if we manage to expand coverage of the uninsured. Howard Dean realizes this, as does Paul Krugman who reiterated this view in his Op-Ed today in the NYT.

President Obama could have used his speeches and town hall meetings to expose the special interests and their misinformation about the public plan. This could also have deterred Democratic senators like Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad who have apparently been bought over by industry interests. Instead, Mr. Obama seems anxious to pass a reform plan that placates the opposition, even if it is weak and ineffective at reining in costs, and then calling this a victory for his administration (and of course "the American people.") Let's hope I'm wrong.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Don't Confuse Corruption With Centrism

In his July 27 column in the New York Times, Paul Krugman exposes the flawed objections of the Blue Dog or so-called centrist Democrat lawmakers to crucial aspects of proposed health care reforms. Krugman says he's not cynical enough to believe these Democratic holdouts are simply acting to protect special interests who buy them off. But it's hard to see it any other way.

After all, Blue Dogs tout fiscal responsibility and their objections to health reforms are supposedly about how to pay for it and to contain costs. Yet they are the ones also (a) seeking higher payments for selected providers, (b) opposing the public option that is the most effective way of lowering the prices charged by providers benefiting from engineered scarcities or non-competitive practices, and (c) opposing employer mandates that prevent shifting a greater burden on to public funds.

I'd have understood and even welcomed these "centrists" seeking additional cost containment measures. These could include more vigorous support for comparative effectiveness and treatment cost effectiveness studies and criteria, and direct negotiation of drug prices by the government for publicly funded plans. Another of importance is malpractice caps and tort reform that is opposed by liberal Democrats who are beholden to their own lawyer lobbies. Incidentally, Paul Krugman is also silent about this last one, and I'd like to see him be more of an honest broker by attacking this sacred (and also very wasteful) cow on the left. But Blue Dogs by and large are conspicuously quiet on all these issues.

The Republican lawmakers are of course even more sold out to the anti-reform lobbies. They trot out meaningless slogans ("socialized medicine") and flawed logic that a reasonable audience should clearly see through. Still, a recent Gallup poll shows that such attacks gained some traction and support for health care reforms is decreasing. Krugman in his August 7 column also notes this trend - the average Joe can apparently be swayed and misled quite easily. So President Obama needs to step up his roles of countering propaganda, and exposing lawmakers seeking to water down reforms - especially Democrat "centrists" - so they're pressured to do the right thing.

The role of industry lobbies and special interests in obstructing health care reforms should also be seen in the context of a larger problem. That's our failure to have an enlightened approach to pay our lawmakers well and to adequately fund their elections with tax dollars. I've talked about this, including in a separate May 29 blog post on the misplaced outrage over the UK MPs' expenses. Campaign finance reform can also go much further with universal adoption of a clean elections system.

However compelling the logic, lawmakers are seen and portrayed as self-serving if they try to give themselves huge raises. A strong case should instead be made on their behalf by opinion leaders like Paul Krugman, Tom Friedman and respected media publications like the Wall Street Journal. Sadly, the WSJ just continues to take cheap shots as in its August 8 front page article and August 10 headlines about petty lawmaker expenses on Congressional trips.