The hard road to real health care reform

Marie DiCowden describes her days right now as “crazy.”

A faculty member in Saybrook’s Graduate College of Mind-Body Medicine, DiCowden also serves as Vice-President for Public Policy of the National Academies of Practice, a national coalition of medical practitioners interested in improving the healthcare system. She’s also the Executive Director of the Biscayne Institutes of Health and Living, a community-based healthcare center in Florida.

That expertise puts her on the forefront of the fight to reform America’s healthcare system … and she says it’s difficult.

“I am back and forth between Florida and D.C. right now,” she says.  “I just got home yesterday and I’m leaving again.  We will get reform … but honestly it is anybody’s guess what will happen to keep insurance companies accountable.  Quite possibly nothing, unless we hold the senators and congresspeople accountable.”

DiCowden isn’t the only one who thinks that the lobbying power of the insurance industry is keeping reform away from health care. 

Craig Holman is the Legislative Representative for Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy organization in Washington D.C., and a leading expert on government ethics.  He helps run an internship program for Saybrook students to work with his organization.  He says that insurance industry lobbying has been a “critical factor” in hobbling the healthcare reform Americans voted for in November. 

“The healthcare industry now accounts for six lobbyists for every member of congress, and they’re the #1 sector in lobbying activity,” he says.  “It’s wielded a great deal of influence, to the point where we’re going to end up with very weak healthcare legislation, if anything.  Certainly not what President Obama had wanted.”

The bulk of that lobbying effort, Holman and DiCowden agree, is aimed at the “Blue Dog Democrats,” congressional Democrats from more conservative areas of the country.  While the Democrats have enough members of congress to pass a healthcare bill without any Republican votes, they don’t have enough to do it without the Blue Dog Democrats’ support – and they are the group most opposed to many of the measures that President Obama has proposed.

“It is most unlikely that Republicans will vote for this with the exception of two or three in the senate…so we need to focus on the Democrats and hold the Blue Dogs accountable,” DiCowden says.  “They are most concerned they will not get re-elected if they vote for something seen as fiscally imprudent:  spending more money on healthcare.”

That’s no accident, Holman says:  it’s exactly the way insurance industry lobbyists want it. 

“The Blue Dog Democrats have come to rely extensively not just on information from the insurance industry, but also on campaign contributions from the executives of the healthcare industry,” Holman says.  “It’s depressing.  This is one of the big things that I really thought the Democrats were going to carry through once they booted George Bush out.  But the healthcare industry realized that the Blue Dogs were the Achilles heel. “

The good news, Holman said, is that lobbying reform is one of the next items on the Obama administration’s agenda.  The bad news is, it will almost certainly come too late to impact the healthcare bills.

“There is pending lobbying reform legislation that, had it been in place, would have had an impact,” Holman said.  He’s most excited about an “Astroturf lobbying disclosure” that will make it illegal for professional lobbying groups to produce political television advertising that looks like it’s from small, local organizations. 

“Right now none of these groups are required to admit that they’re industry lobbyists rather than citizen groups:  that could change,” Holman says.  But “it will come too slow and too late for the healthcare bill.”

DiCowden, meanwhile, is urging anyone who lives in a state represented by a Blue Dog congressperson to contact them and voice their support for healthcare reform.  (Families USA, she notes, has a listing of all the Blue Dog Democratic members of congress). 

“At Saybrook, we’re teaching about a transformation in healthcare, the recognition of the critical role that the mind-body connection, and the community, and the spiritual element, play in effective healing,” she says.  “We can make a change person by person:  but to make a big change, we’ll need systems that understand this too.” 

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