The US Senate: It’s Not Just Healthcare That Needs Reform

Nov 12, 2009   //   Healthcare, Politics

Introductory Remarks

Following last Saturday’s historic vote on healthcare legislation in the US House of Representatives, the headline in Monday morning’s paper read “Health Bill Hits Senate Wall”.   Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC, declared that “The House bill (that contains a government-run public option) is dead on arrival in the Senate”.  Senator Joe Lieberman, I-CT, stated that if a government plan is part of the legislation that “as a matter of conscience, I will not allow this bill to come to a final vote”.   Senator Mary Landrieu, D-LA, a moderate, also has expressed her reservations about supporting a government-run public option but would be more willing to adopt a ‘trigger’ that would put a government-run option in place at some future date should the industry not reform.

There are three issues I have with the behavior of some Senators.  1) The first involves a double standard; regarding those Senators who oppose a government-run public option, many of them being financially quite well-off, they certainly do not seem to have any hesitation in using taxpayer money to support their own government-run benefits programs.  2) Throughout this year Senators in both parties have been accepting record amounts of special interest monies being doled out by the healthcare industry that opposes a government-run public option; eight of the top 10 recipients sit on the two committees drafting healthcare legislation.  3)  We are once again seeing block voting, especially from Republicans, on major legislation.  This signals a lack of independent expression of thought as well as placing party agenda ahead of public need as one American citizen is dying every 12 minutes, and one US Veteran is dying every 4 hours, in this country because they lack health coverage and had reduced access to medical care. These issues will be the topic of this article.

Background

The Senate has been called a ‘millionaire’s club’ (1).  In a September, 2009 Time article, it was reported that the median value of US Senators net worth registers at $1.06 million, meaning that at least half of our current Senators are millionaires; the average net worth per senator stood at $6.64 million.  In contrast, a 2008 Census Bureau report showed the median net worth for household headed by 55- to 64-year-olds reached $133,000 – or just $34,000 excluding home equity (2002 data, the most recent available).  In 2003 at least 40 US Senators, 22 Republicans and 18 Democrats, were reported to be millionaires (2).  An examination of the list shows that many of these Senators are still in office, e.g., Grassley, Landrieu, McConnell, Hutchinson, Gregg, Feinstein, Kerry, etc.  The figures reported for these Senators were conservative as they were reported in broad ranges and the statements did not include the value of federal salaries, pensions, primary residences or bank accounts less than $5,000.

The annual salary of a US Senator, as of 2009, is $174,000 (3), well above that of the average American citizen.  The President pro tempore and party leaders receive $193,400.  Their retirement and health benefits are fully vested after 5 years of service, less than one term in office.  US Senators are covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System or the Civil Service Retirement System depending upon when they were elected to office.  Their medical benefits are covered by the Federal Employee Health Benefits program.  They pay the same premiums as other federal employees based upon their choice of the medical benefits being offered.  Federal taxes, actually, are what pay the benefits for these elected officials.

The United States is the only advanced nation that does not provide guaranteed access to essential health care.  It should be no surprise that access to healthcare has a positive effect on longevity.  A recently published study out of Harvard Medical School has put numbers to the obvious (5). Nearly 45,000 people die in the US each year, one every 12 minutes, in large part because they lack heath insurance and can not get good care.  The mortality is greater than that of drunk driving and homicide combined.  Another recently released study (6) estimates that 2,266 US veterans died in 2008 because they lacked health coverage and had reduced access to medical care; this number of deaths is over 14 times higher than troop deaths in Afghanistan during the same time period.

Issues

A Double Standard Regarding Benefits

As mentioned above, there are those in the US Senate who have stated that they will not support a government-run option that would guarantee access to affordable essential care to the less fortunate of our society.  This seems to include all Republican Senators at this point (with the possible exception of Senator Snowe) as well as some moderate Democratic Senators.  However, these same individuals, many of them quite well-off financially, seem to have no difficulty in accepting tax payer dollars, even derived from citizens who can not obtain health insurance due to pre-existing conditions, to support their own government-run benefits program?  We have affluent Senators who participate in a taxpayer supported government-run benefits program who would deny the less fortunate in our country access to a government-run option because it would be bad for America??  This behavior is akin to an Aristocracy levying taxes to their own benefit while denying the populace access to the same level of benefit they enjoy.  The behavior is deplorable, morally corrupt and hypocritical.

Special Interest Monies

It would be naive to believe that money does not buy influence or that business necessarily keeps the public interest as priority number one (look no further than the behavior in the financial industries that just last year took us to the brink of economic collapse).  Citing our Constitution, we elect officials to have a government for the people … their job is to represent us.

It is no secret that the health industry opposes a government-run public option and it has been putting both its money and its substantial lobbying efforts into overdrive.  The amount of campaign contributions this year is already breaking records for off-year election cycles, with House and Senate candidates of both parties raising more that $250 million the first half  of 2009 (4).   Of the top 10 US Senators receiving donations from the health industry, eight serve on the two committees drafting health-reform legislation, and the other two, Reid and Specter, figure prominently in the debate.  Some of these Senators who are actively engaged in drafting legislation have moved well up the list regarding the amount of contribution they have received.   Regarding Senator Joe Lieberman’s claim that the healthcare reform expense could drive us into another recession, last year’s Nobel prize winner in economics, Paul Krugman (Princeton University) has rebuffed that claim in that the House legislation would actually reduce the deficit by $100 billion over the next decade (7); it has been reported that Senator Lieberman has accepted $427,644 from insurance companies since 2005 and recently accepted $65,200 from Aetna and its employees (8).

So, there are Senators who oppose a government-run public option because it would be bad for our healthcare or economy, after they have accepted substantial sums of money from the healthcare industry to support their re-election efforts, when a US citizen is dying every 12 minutes because they lack health insurance and can not get good care?  And especially for those Senators from the Republican Party that proclaims ‘Support our Troops’, a US veteran is dying less than every 4 hours in this country because they lack health insurance and have reduced access to care – this when our veterans have put their lives on the line for this country?  Self-interest versus public interest?

With American lives in jeopardy, special interest money should not be intertwined with this debate.  When I, or my consultants, have given testimony before the government, we were required to disclose any financial conflicts of interest regarding the topic under consideration.  In government proceedings it is standard practice for individuals on panels who have financial conflicts to be part of the debate but not the vote.  It seems that our Senators are playing by a different set of rules – accepting special interest money and yet still voting.

Block Voting

Will Rogers once said: “Democrats never agree on anything, that’s why they’re Democrats.  If they agreed with each other, they would be Republicans”.  Once again we seem to be facing a block vote (with the possible exception of Senator Snowe) with the Republican Party.  Granted that partisan voting occurs on both sides of the aisle but it certainly seems more pronounced with the Republicans (note the recent House vote on healthcare legislation where 39 Democrats broke rank  but only 1 Republican did).

We have seen this before with major legislation.  As examples, OBRA93, deficit reduction legislation which actually proved to be quite effective, was put into law without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate even though our country had quadrupled its national debt between 1981-1992.  Just this year, with both conservative and liberal economists calling for a stimulus package to buoy our economy during this severe recession, only the three Republican Senators who negotiated the stimulus legislation voted in favor of it, and not one House Republican did, even though the legislation contained $300 billion in tax relief to working Americans, a hallmark of Republican economic policy – not one House Republican found anything good about that legislation?

I do not see any independent expression of thought out of the Republican party.  It speaks to party agenda rather than public agenda.  And recently it seems that if Republicans do not vote party line that they are targeted for replacement by a more conservative candidate (a purification of the party?).  I believe Florida Governor Charlie Crist has been targeted based upon Tea Party activity in his state.  We deserve serious debate on issues in Congress, not just blind party line voting.  Ted Kennedy, in an interview with Bob Schieffer not long ago, was asked what was different in Washington today versus the 60′s when both sides could sit down and hash out an agreement.  His answer was simple: money.  As Schieffer commented, the vote is in before the debate begins.

Concluding Remarks

It is not just healthcare that needs to be reformed; it is the behavior of some of our elected politicians that needs to be addressed.  We have Senators, some of whom are quite well-off financially and on both sides of the aisle, who apparently have no problem accepting taxpayer dollars, even from those who are excluded from health insurance, to fund their own government-run benefits programs.  And yet these same Senators would deny our citizens access to the same sort of benefit they enjoy at our expense.  We have Senators who will not support a government-run option on the basis that it is bad for America’s healthcare after they have taken substantial sums of money from the healthcare industry to support their re-election efforts – this while  American citizens and US veterans are dying every day in this country because they lack health insurance and can not get good care.  And we do not seem to have much independent thought being expressed, especially from Republican Senators, who vote straight party line – a party agenda over public agenda.

Actions speak louder than words and the actions of some Senators shout more of self-interest and party agenda than public need and American lives.  Yes, it is more than just healthcare that needs reform.  Should any of you be equally appalled at this behavior, just remember that you do hold the ultimate power – your vote – and that is more powerful than special interest money as long as you do not fall victim to the sound bites that money produces.

Readings and Sources

1.  The Senate: A Millionaire’s Club, Time/CNN, Sept 29, 2009

2.  Millionaires populate US Senate, CNN.com/Inside Politics, June 13, 2003

3.  The US Senate, Salary and Benefits

4.  Health Industry Throws Cash at Senators, Newsweek, Sept 30, 2009

5.  Study Links 45,000 US Deaths to Lack of Insurance, Reuters, Sept 17, 2009

6.  Lack of Health Care Killed 2,266 US Veterans Last Year: Study, Nov 11, 2009

7. The Defining Moment, NY Times, Oct 29, 2009

8. Stand Up To Lieberman, Health Care Companies, The Daily Campus, Nov 12, 2009

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