The House Rules Committee heard powerful testimony about the urgency of passing Medicare for All from Ady Barkan, who is in late stages of ALS. Wendell Potter on Reality Asserts Itself hosted by Paul Jay
PAUL JAY In a historic first, Medicare for All actually got a hearing on the Hill. During that hearing, Ady Barkan, in advanced stages of ALS disease, spoke. Here’s a segment of that.
ADY BARKAN [CLIP] Never before have I given a speech without my natural voice. Never before have I had to rely on a synthetic voice to lay out my arguments, convey my most passionately held beliefs, tell the details of my personal story.
Medicare for all is the only system [that’s efficient]. Over the past three years, I have seen firsthand how the current system creates absurdly wasteful cost-shifting, delays, billing disputes, rationing and worry. Administrative waste is costing us hundreds of billions of dollars every year.
Some people argue that while medicare for all is a great idea, we need to move slowly … I needed it yesterday. Million of people need it today. The time to pass this law is now.
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PAUL JAY Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. That was a hearing of the Rules Committee. As I said in the beginning, it’s the first time Medicare for All actually got a hearing in front of a committee in Congress. And now joining us to continue our discussions about health care and more about the American political system is Wendell Potter. Thanks for joining us, Wendell.
WENDELL POTTER My pleasure.
PAUL JAY Wendell is a former health insurance executive. He served as head of corporate communications for Cigna before leaving in 2008 with what he describes as a crisis of conscience. He’s the author of the book Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out, and How Corporate PR Is Killing Healthare and Deceiving Americans. He’s also the founder of Tarbell.org, that does investigative journalism into health care issues, and money and politics. Thanks for joining us.
WENDELL POTTER My pleasure.
PAUL JAY So, you watched that hearing this morning. First of all, talk about the significance of the hearing.
WENDELL POTTER Well, it just–It’s significant in that just 10 years ago, advocates for moving to a Medicare for All type of health care system were not given a seat at the table at all. In fact there were advocates who were literally thrown out of the Senate hearing when they were protesting the fact that no one was there on the, at the committee level to even testify about Medicare for All.
PAUL JAY So just to place people, this is the hearings under President Obama’s administration. He gets Senator Baucus to chair the hearings, and there’s nobody at this eight, nine person table representing Medicare for All, single payer. There’s every other variety of representative, but nobody doing that.
WENDELL POTTER Yeah. And the insurance industry, the drug companies, the hospital companies, they all had a seat at the table.
PAUL JAY And one should say, also, SEIU, the union had a seat at the table. But they didn’t advocate it, either.
WENDELL POTTER They didn’t, because it was just something that was considered too much pie in the sky. Can never happen in this country. So that just indicates how far we’ve come. And one of the reasons is because we’ve realized as a nation, and certainly a lot of policymakers have, that the Affordable Care Act, while it did some good, didn’t go nearly far enough. We still have nearly 30 million people who don’t have insurance in this country, and a very rapidly growing number of people who are underinsured. They have insurance, they’re paying premiums every month, but they’re not able to use their policies in many cases because the deductibles are so high.
So we’ve seen deductibles increase dramatically since the Affordable Care Act was passed. We’ve seen that a lot of the practices of the insurance industry have continued. And one of the consequences of this law is that the entrenched special interests have continue to make a lot of money. A lot of money. But more and more people in the real world are being disadvantaged.
PAUL JAY As you watched Ady Barkan’s testimony, how did you feel? You’ve been fighting this fight for quite a few years.
WENDELL POTTER You know, it was somewhat emotional to watch him, because his his testimony was incredibly emotional. He has ALS. He realizes he doesn’t have a lot longer to live. And he was talking about his being diagnosed and the struggles that he and his family have faced paying for the care that he needs. And they have insurance. They have pretty decent insurance.
It was a real world example of what people–what can happen to people. We have this belief in the United States that if you’ve got employer-sponsored health care, if you’ve got insurance, that it’s going to be there when you need it. But he was living proof, with very compelling testimony, that that’s not the case.
PAUL JAY Well, what happened to him? I mean, I think most people think once you’ve paid your deductible, you’re covered.
WENDELL POTTER But it doesn’t necessarily–that’s not the way it really is in this country. There are there a lot of things that–In the private health insurance system you have bureaucrats, an insurance company, that really is calling the shots. It often is–your doctor might recommend a treatment or a medication, but there’s someone at an insurance company that will be the final decider as to whether or not you get that. And in some cases the decisions are that you’re not going to get the coverage. And as he said in his testimony, he wants to stay at home as long as he can, to stay with his family. But he’s–to do that he’s essentially had to raise money from supporters to be able to to pay for the care that, you know, to help-
PAUL JAY Because he would need breathing equipment and other kinds of things at home.
WENDELL POTTER Yeah. And otherwise he’d have to go into a nursing facility and be away from his family. And so he’s having to raise money. As he said, it’s ridiculous. And in this country you have to resort to Go Fund Me campaigns to pay for your health care even if you’ve got insurance.
So that’s kind of the state of where we are in this country. A lot of people have insurance. They in many cases have this false belief that it’s going to be there when they need it. They don’t really understand the role that private insurance companies play, how they have inserted themselves between doctors and patients, and how much they are able to avoid paying for the care that we get.
PAUL JAY Well, we’re going to dig into all this in more detail in our future segments. But talk about–the hearing, to a large extent, was about the bill proposed by Pramila Jayapal. And what is the gist of her bill, and how would that change things?
WENDELL POTTER It would create an improved Medicare for All. It would expand the current Medicare program, which covers people who are 65 and older, and people who have certain disabilities. It would expand that to include everybody. It would also improve it to cover more. In our current Medicare program it doesn’t cover vision and dental, for example, or long term care. So that would be covered.
And it’s also structured to eliminate these deductibles that I just spoke about to make health care more affordable. We have a system in which a lot of people, as I said, they have insurance but they can’t use it. They’re foregoing the care that they need. They’re often not going to the doctor because of the financial obligations they have to make before their insurance kicks in. That would all be ended. And it would be universal. It would be everybody in the country would be enrolled in Medicare, and it would ultimately a lot more efficiently operate. We spend about $3.5 trillion on health care in this country now, and about a third of that goes to administrative functions and profits. Much of that could be eliminated.
It’s a very important and very major bill that would restructure how we finance health care. Health care would still be privately delivered. Doctors and hospitals would still be private and independent. But we’d be restructuring how we finance care.
PAUL JAY Now, that’s a pretty important question. In Canada, where there is often given as the example of, you know, the kind of system that could be in the United States, almost all hospitals are publicly owned. And it’s one of the ways they control costs. And I think Bernie Sanders’ proposal, and Jayapal’s proposal, as you said, the hospitals remain what they are. Either they’re private nonprofits, or private or state owned. But a lot of big hospitals are not publicly owned. That’s right. But isn’t that an important feature in making this whole thing affordable?
WENDELL POTTER It’s an important component of making it workable. But like, you know, it’s different from the system in the United Kingdom, for example, in which the National Health Service actually owns most of the hospitals, and employs most of the doctors. Under the Jayapal bill and the Sanders bill you would have a means of making the health care, certainly at the–let’s take hospitals first, for example. The Jayapal bill would establish global budgets. It would determine a budget for each hospital in the country, and based on the patient mix, the demographics of a particular community, what the hospital–what services it offers. And that would be one way of getting our arms around the health care costs in this country. And the same–it would be a similar approach in the Sanders bill. And the the way we pay for drugs would be changed significantly. The Medicare program would be able to negotiate directly with drug companies, which it cannot do now.
PAUL JAY Now, one of the significance of this hearing is that it gets heard. But the overall agenda of the House is going to be set by Nancy Pelosi to a large extent, and a lot of the Democrats, some people call corporate Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi in that, are not a fan of Medicare for All. They want improved Affordable Health Care Act. And how easy is it going to be? Or I should say, how difficult is it going to be to really have this heard properly? Medicare for All heard properly on the Hill?
WENDELL POTTER Well, it’s not going to be a walk in the park, for sure. But on the other hand, there are members in other committees that have signed on as sponsors of this legislation. In fact, it has about 108 co-sponsors, which is a significant percentage of the Democratic caucus in the house. So a lot of members have signed on to this bill through other committees of–so-called committees of jurisdiction, like the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee, the House Budget Committee. They’re all expected to hold hearings at some point. Now, the one that was just health was in the Rules Committee. So there are a lot of committees that have some jurisdiction over this legislation. There will be others. But that’s also historic, as well. We have the promise and expectation that at some point these other committees will also hold hearings. So it’s being discussed in ways it never has before.
PAUL JAY And this is going to have a real effect on the Democratic Party primary. I mean, they can’t pass this legislation in Congress, because the Senate–there’s no way the Senate’s going to vote for Medicare for All.
WENDELL POTTER Right. McConnell has said that. He’s not going to have a hearing in the Senate.
PAUL JAY So the first real practical effect of this is how it might influence the primary, because some of the people running for president, like Bernie Sanders, are for Medicare for All. I don’t think Joe Biden is. I think he’s for a stronger ACA. So the hearings are going to have a lot to do with how this debate plays in a real fight for the leadership to become the representative of the party in the election.
WENDELL POTTER Right. And I can’t overestimate the importance of today’s hearings. And there were some because of Speaker Pelosi’s ambivalence, I guess you would say, at best toward this legislation, that it would be kind of stacked against those who support Medicare for All. But it actually turned out to be a very good hearing for Medicare for All advocates. I think at the end of the day they were pretty happy with the way it went. And this is going to be encouraging to advocates around the country that this, first of all, that it was held at all. And, secondly, that it got a good hearing.
Clearly there were critics. The Republicans always got a chance to have those, you know, their friends at the witness table. And they were there. I refer to them as ‘friends of the industry,’ as well, too. There was a couple of think tank representatives there, and both of them have gotten money from industry, from corporations. So they’re kind of the usual suspects that you typically see at these hearings but the witnesses invited the Democrats largely were supportive or made the case for moving forward. And certainly moving beyond where we are now because you can’t look at where we are and not realize that the Affordable Care Act falls far short of getting us to where we need to be in so many ways.
OK. In the next segments of our interview we’re going to talk about how Wendell Potter got to be a whistleblower on the industry that he had become a senior executive in. And we’ll get to the hearings where he blew the whistle on what he knew about as an insider what he knew about how insurance companies were essentially deciding issues of life, who would live and who would die, and how it brought him to what he called a crisis of conscience to come to Congress and expose all of this. And then we’ll talk further about the issues of the day.
So please join us for the continuation of Reality Asserts Itself with Wendell Potter on The Real News Network.