Why Do We Need Health Care Reform? Don't Ask George Will

One of the things I hope to do with my post is to call out misleading statements and statistics, outright lies and illogical assertions by opponents of meaningful health care reform—and to rat out the front groups that insurers and other special interests are funding to kill reform or, failing that, shape it to their benefit.

I'm starting with a biggie, conservative author and columnist George Will, who suggests in his June 28 column in The Washington Post that, because of the complexity and expense of reforming the American health care system, maybe we would be better off just leaving well enough alone.

Well enough? For him, maybe. He's got a great gig at the Post and as a TV network pundit, and he has sold lots of books, so he probably doesn't have to worry, as most other Americans do, about being just one layoff away from joining the 50 million other men, women and children in the ranks of the uninsured. And even if the Post gave him a pink slip this afternoon, chances are he has stashed enough away that he can afford to shell out the nearly $13,000 that the average annual premium for decent family coverage costs these days (and that was in 2007).

The median household income in this country is just about $50,000. I'm betting it has been a few years since Will faced paying more than a fourth of his family's annual income—before taxes—just to cover the health insurance premiums. More and more of us also face paying thousands more of our hard-earned dollars in out-of-pocket expenses before the coverage we pay so dearly for actually kicks in. If Will and other critics of real reform just did a little simple math, they would understand why the number of people without insurance is so high and growing so rapidly, and why at least 25 million more of us are now under-insured.

After telling us we might live to regret trying to reform our dysfunctional non-system, Will makes this assertion:

"Most Americans do want different health care: They want 2009 medicine at 1960 prices."

Yeah, that would be nice, and it sure makes for a great quip, but no one I know expects that. Maybe he knows "most Americans" better than I do, but I doubt it. Instead, I suspect he sees the world in much the same way insurance company executives see it from their spacious offices, the windows of their chauffeur-driven limos and the corporate jets that fly them comfortably over "most Americans." When you're at that altitude, it's hard to get a real fix on what most Americans want, much less what so many of them so desperately need.

To be fair and perfectly honest, I saw the world that way too for most of the 20 years I worked inside the insurance industry. The more money I made and the more perks I was given, the less I thought about the hardships many people face who are not as privileged. It took seeing thousands of people standing in the rain in long lines to get care in a barn just a few miles from where I grew up to finally get it.

It is true, as Will notes, that many Americans enrolled in employer-sponsored health insurance plans have been able to rely on their employers to pay the lion's share of the premiums. What is also true, but not mentioned in his column, is that fewer and fewer Americans can get coverage through their employers these days, and that of those who can, most are now having to pay a larger share of the premiums and much higher out-of-pocket expenses.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal story, the number of small employers offering coverage has dropped from 61 percent to 38 percent since 1993. And the way insurers and employers are dealing with medical inflation is to shift more of the financial burden onto the shoulders of working men and women.

Insurers and their ideological allies, like Grace Marie Turner of the Galen Institute and Betsy McCauaghey of the Hudson Institute, both of whom Will cites as experts in his column and both of whose organizations are corporate funded, say this is a good thing because, they contend, Americans have been insulated for far too long from the real costs of health care.

That's easy for someone to say who has never had to file for bankruptcy, as millions of Americans have, because the insurance coverage they were counting on didn't come close to covering their medical bills when they got sick or had an accident. And it's easy for a rich, famous and out-of-touch columnist to callously content that all Americans really want is 2009 medicine at 1960 prices, so let's just call the whole thing off.

Wendell Potter is the Senior Fellow on Health Care for the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin.


You discuss at length the problems of health care reform, but fail to mention that the ultimate reform must come from Americans taking charge of their own health. . . Changing to more healthful lifestyles that reduce their need for doctors and drugs.

I agree people should do what they can to take care of their own health, but that word "ultimate" only works if healthful lifestyles sufficed to eliminate the need for doctors and drugs, not just reduce it. Failing that, healthful lifestyle would merely be a "very significant" reform, not the ultimate one. And remember, the deck is stacked against healthful choices for much of the population. You want healthful lifestyles for everyone, you have to do something about the economic, political, social and cultural factors that stand in the way.

I agree with you, Mr. Durbin, to a point. Sure, we have way too much obesity in this country which leads to higher cholesterol, more heart attacks and Type II diabetes. Some of this is unavoidable due to the highly processed, preserved, saturated and salted foods many have no choice but to eat. (I think there's an argument here for taxes on super sugary foods and drinks). And smokers are just asking for lung cancer. (Fortunately, we've taxed that to kingdom come and put informative labels on all products and advertising bans to children.) However, accidents, illness and disease many times come on unexpectedly irregardless of how much you're taking care of yourself. So the crux of the issue comes back to the private insurance industry. The axing of those with pre-existing conditions many of which don't have a culpable cause, is in my view immoral. Would you rather have a corporate bureaucrat concerned about his or her profit margin make health care decisions for you or a government bureaucrat with no interest in making a profit for him/herself?

I must comment. We hear this so much! The fact is, STUFF happens. My wife suffered terrible symptoms for ten years. The doc would not go up against the insurance company and demand they pay for the tests. He told her it was stress and menopause (at age 40). After ten years of misery, my wife insisted on a battery of tests. Luckily, a radiologist reviewed another radiologist's diagnosis of a "normal" scan and found the tumors. By then, it had metastasized. Now, it costs $11,000 a month to care for her. If anyone knew then or knows now the cause of carcinoid, or neuro-endocrine, tumors, they must make that info available. Fact is, no one knows. My wife never smoked, worked out regularly, and had at most a glass of wine a week. Bad things happen to good people. This blame game is just another ploy of the insurance industry. I hope and pray to God that you do not have to deal with the misery that my wife faces every day. The reality is that you, nor anyone else, can prevent some diseases by lifestyle, prayer, or voodoo. That is why everyone must be in a national health insurance plan with a public option.

I worked for CIGNA for nearly twenty years, most of in the account management field. Apparently Mr. Potter who made quite a bit of money either keeping quiet about what he saw or getting his own hands dirty, was in charge of the communication arm that we used to inform customers of our policies. I find it odd that he chose to come forward after he retires comfortably. He reminds me of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara who sent soldiers to their deaths in Viet Nam and only well after he retired did he admit that mistakes were made under his watch. If any of Potter's charges are true, then I like the millions of Viet Nam vets who were irate at McNamara's confession feel Wendell Potter let down his fellow CIGNA employees as well as millionas of customers. Donate some of your tained retirement to the uninsured if you feel like making a difference.

<blockquote>If any of Potter's charges are true, then I like the millions of Viet Nam vets who were irate at McNamara's confession feel Wendell Potter let down his fellow CIGNA employees as well as millions of customers.</blockquote> I notice you're not denying what Potter said. If his charges are true, how can you feel let down? If they were true, how could you work there for 20 years without realization dawning at some point? Why weren't you out there blowing the whistle on Cigna's practices as exemplified by that so-and-so Potter, or at least looking for a cleaner job? Seems to me that if anyone let you down, you yourself did.

Mr. Potter would not be the first "whistle blower" to come out of a corporate closet. Are we to dismiss him because it took him so long to develop a conscience? The corporate and political climate in this country has been fouled by greed for so long that even nice people can lose sight of the problems their jobs and careers are causing in society. We are all guilty of this to some degree. Ever think about the cheap labor that makes your clothes or harvests your food. Anyone work for a drug company out there whose products are destroying the livers of countless people everyday. I think Mr. Potter has shown a lot of courage by coming forward. And I am sure that he is grappling with his recent realization that the industry that he found employment with all these years is responsible for the deaths of thousands and the financial ruin of countless others. Let the man redeem himself. No one is asking that you throw him a party.

No, Mr. Potter has had many years to reflect on his role. In fact, he should understand just how the system locked himself and others into reality-denial; he was a reality-deflection agent himself. And yet he is still ambivalent and unwilling to address the larger scope. If those plates had been silver-rimmed, would he have accepted his post-retirement job offer? Really, the public morality of Americans is disgusting. They stoop under the encumbrance of their capitalist armor. "[E]ven nice people can lose sight of the problems their jobs and careers are causing in society." American's don't "lose sight". They almost never take their blinders off.

Government run healthcare will kill the world's greatest healthcare! What is wrong with you people? Do you honestly believe a government that can't even run Medicaid and Medicare now can handle coverage for the entire population???? Come on...wise up. This is a disaster waiting to happen. And why the rush?? Are you afraid that if you don't cram it down our throats now you'll miss the opportunity because the majority of Americans will figure out how they are getting shafted and then you'll never get it done??? This country better wake up before we lose every single liberty that our forefathers fought and died for....hello??? Anyone listening????

First of all, nobody is proposing "government-run health care," but "government-run insurance." So you're misleading from the start. On what basis do you contend that government-run health insurance won't work? Millions of Americans receive care through Medicare, and most of them are quite happy with it. If they're not, they're free to choose private medical insurance, but most opt for Medicare. And back in the Clinton Administration, when we had people in the government who actually believed in government, the VA ran a very good health care system before the Bush ideologues undermined the system. There is a fundamental problem with private medical insurance: Insurers make money by NOT paying claims, and incentives for innovation are to find ways to minimize those payouts, rather than in providing better, more cost-effective care. Thus they cherry-pick customers, raise premiums, deny for pre-existing conditions, etc.. And for all the talk of "bureaucrats" getting between patients and doctors, now we have insurance company bureaucrats doing so. I don't even claim private insurance firms are evil; they're simply rational. I support a single-payer system because then that single payer might have an incentive to spend money on public health and preventive care ("you can pay me now...or pay me later"), which many insurers have no incentive to pay now since the savings might accrue to a different insurer. If a private firm can do this, great, but I suspect only the federal government has the ability to create a single risk pool that would make this possible. And for those of you who claim government can run things: you probably trust government to fight our wars, so why don't you think they can run health insurance?