Left Out From Obama’s Health Care Summit

Barack Obama promised to put fixing America’s broken health care system at the top of his agenda as president. But supporters of the one solution that could actually work were at the bottom of his White House invitation list.

As Obama’s White House health care summit approached on March 5, advocates of a so-called “single-payer” system, under which the government would cover everyone, eliminating the role of private insurers, were stunned to learn they weren’t invited. It was an insult to organizations that have been warning for years about the health care crisis-in-the-making and putting forward the single-payer alterative — Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), the California Nurses Association (CNA) and Healthcare-NOW!

Rep. John Conyers, the sponsor of a bill, known by its official designation HR 676, that would establish single-payer, personally asked Obama for an invitation when the two met at a Congressional Black Caucus meeting. The answer was no.

Only because people flooded the White House with angry phone calls, faxes and e-mails, and PNHP threatened to protest, the administration relented and reluctantly invited Conyers and Oliver Fein, the president of PNHP.

At the summit, Obama stated: “In this effort, every voice must be heard. Every idea must be considered. Every option must be on the table. There will be no sacred cows in this discussion.”

This simply isn’t true. Obama and his advisers have stated openly and unequivocally that as far as they are concerned, single-payer isn’t on the table — and the White House guest list for the summit proves the point.

Summit invitations went out to more than 120 “stakeholders,” [1] every one of them opposed to single-payer, save for Conyers and Fein. It was a rogue’s gallery of profit-seeking, price-gouging, highly compensated corporate criminals from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

Among them were Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), annual compensation $1,236,422; Scott Serota, CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield, annual compensation $1,498,018; Jeff Kindler, CEO of Pfizer, annual compensation $12.6 million; and Ken Powell, member of the Business Roundtable and CEO of General Mills, annual compensation $6,515,047.

Another invitation went to Billy Tauzin, a former Republican member of Congress notorious for his sleazy deals, and now, as president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the top lobbyist for the drug company giants.

There were representatives from patient organizations and unions at the table, too: the American Cancer Society, AARP, Families USA, the Service Employees International Union, the United Auto Workers, and the AFL-CIO. Unfortunately, the leaders of these organizations still accept that there is a role for the private insurance industry, even while many of their members do not.

Watching the breakout sessions streaming live over the Internet was both infuriating and surreal. The “stakeholders” sat side by side at the same table, laughing and smiling — among them, CEOs responsible for a health care crisis that has left 50 million Americans uninsured and that causes the needless deaths of 18,000 and 100,000 people every year, depending on who is doing the estimating.

Meanwhile, not one union leader or patient advocate or political leader was willing to point out the responsibility of the insurance and pharmaceutical industry for the crisis. Not one dared to speak truth to power, not even Conyers.

Obama set the tone for the meeting by asserting, “Each of us must accept that none of us will get everything we want, and no proposal for reform will be perfect. While everyone has a right to take part in this discussion, no one has the right to take it over.” Yet in each of the five breakout sessions, the insurance industry did dominate the discussion. Moreover, the moderators of each session were all foes of single-payer, including Zeke Emanuel, a physician and brother of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

At the end of the forum, Obama handed the microphone to Ignagni, the voice of the insurance industry, who declared, “We hear the American people about what’s not working. We’ve taken that seriously. You have our commitment to play, to contribute, and to help pass health care reform this year.”

Really? Is this the same Ignagni whose AHIP bankrolled the infamous Harry and Louise television commercials 15 years ago in a successful attempt to smear the Clinton administration’s health care reform effort (though the Clintons certainly helped by putting forward a compromised proposal).

Does anyone seriously believe the AHIP would be willing to play fair if it didn’t think the Obama administration was preparing to deliver “reform” on terms that preserve its interests and profits?

Single-payer advocates never even got in the door in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s secret meetings on health care. According to the New York Times, Kennedy has been holding behind-closed-doors gatherings since last fall with lobbyists from AHIP, PhRMA, the Business Roundtable and others.

These clandestine, invitation-only sessions were designed to whittle down options for health care reform under the Obama presidency, with the health care industry setting the parameters of what would be acceptable. Reportedly, the insurance industry got a guarantee from Kennedy that single-payer wouldn’t be on the table.

According to the Times, the consensus in the Kennedy meetings embraced so-called “mandates”–a legal requirement that every American have health insurance. As a memo written by a Kennedy staffer and leaked to the Times put it:

[T]he sense of the room is that an individual obligation to purchase insurance should be part of reform if that obligation is coupled with effective mechanisms to make coverage meaningful and affordable…There seems to be a sense of the room that some form of tax penalty is an effective means to enforce such an obligation, though only on those for whom affordable coverage is available.

According to the Times, the industry lobbyists at Ted’s table said they would accept stricter regulation, including a requirement to offer coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions, but only if the federal government requires everyone to buy coverage.

This is essentially the same scheme for insurance mandates that was passed in Massachusetts in 2006, under then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a right-wing Republican.

Under the Massachusetts law, for those who don’t have employer-provided coverage, the state subsidizes sub-standard insurance coverage for the poor, and requires those in other income brackets to buy policies or pay a tax penalty — this year, it will be over $1,000.

In other words, the insurance companies make money coming and going, and ordinary people pay the price. A recent study by doctors at Harvard Medical School, titled “Massachusetts’ Plan: A Failed Model for Health Care Reform,” shows the Massachusetts mandate model isn’t financially sustainable or truly affordable for those required to buy private insurance.

The plan hasn’t even attained its stated goal of “universal” coverage: over 200,000 people in Massachusetts are still uninsured, and that number will increase as a result of rising unemployment. That is the other major flaw in the model — it continues to link health insurance to employment.

The cost of an individual plan in Massachusetts averages around $3,500 for an individual and $10,000 for a family. The Commonwealth Choice program classifies commercial plans into four levels: Gold, Silver, Bronze and Young Adult. The lower-priced Bronze plans have a $2,000 per person deductible, co-pays and restrictions on where care is provided. The message: We won’t all be Michael Phelps.

As for the federal “reform” effort, insurance executives have made it clear they will oppose the creation of a new public Medicare-like option, with the government providing health care benefits. The insurers complain this would be unfair competition — Ignagni has called such proposals “a ‘stalking horse’ to drive the nation toward a single-payer government system.”

The insurance companies want “reform” that delivers the entire nation to their doorstep and forces us to buy private insurance from them at prices they set. They definitely don’t want any option that lets people opt out of their system and choose a public plan, as no doubt millions would, if given a choice.

In a distortion of the single-payer slogan “Everybody in, nobody out,” the insurers want everybody in and nobody out . . . of their private, for-profit system.

The health care summit was a reality check for anyone who may have had illusions that Obama would advocate for a single-payer system once he got into office. Despite saying that he would favor such a system if he was “starting from scratch,” Obama is clearly opposed to single-payer under the current circumstances. On the contrary, he has invited the parasitical insurance industry to continue to play a central role in health care.

The administration is holding health care forums in five states, and activists are planning to hold protests and pickets to make sure the message of the single-payer movement is heard. The hope for winning health care justice for all doesn’t lie with political leaders, but with organizing and protest at the grassroots.


Activists for single-payer plan to make their voices heard at demonstrations outside the White House forums on health care reform taking place around the country. See the home page of the California Nurses Association Web site for more details as they become available. The group Healthcare-NOW! also has information about the protests.

Physicians for a National Health Program has a Web site that makes the case for a government-administered single-payer program and has information on single-payer legislation sponsored by Rep. John Conyers.

Nancy’s Welch’s article, “National Health Care: A Dream Deferred,” in the International Socialist Review, examines what it will take to win health care for all. Also in the ISR, Helen Redmond uncovers the crooked practices of the pharmaceutical industry in “Bitter Medicine.”

Helen Redmond writes for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. Thanks to Alan Maass. Read other articles by Helen, or visit Helen's website.

21 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Ron Horn said on March 19th, 2009 at 12:10pm #

    There are few issues other than single payer medical insurance that so dramatically highlight the fact that this country is run by and for the big corporations. Corporate insurance industry’s hold on this nation’s medical care is totally irrational, and that is why our “representatives” in Washington refuse to listen to single payer advocates.

  2. joed said on March 19th, 2009 at 12:53pm #

    fine article,
    thank you ms. redmond.
    now, why don’t the leaders organize a general strike and major shutdown. rather than whine and cry here at the FREE SPEACH ZONE aka DissidentVoice.
    just do something!

  3. joed said on March 19th, 2009 at 12:57pm #

    sorry but demonstrations will not have any value. it will take hardship and sacrifice to make change. general strike is one tactic that the masters understand. but if you arent willing to sacrifice then you may as well stay home. sorry but demostrations will not have any value. you must be willing to sacrifice.

  4. Barry99 said on March 19th, 2009 at 1:16pm #

    Whose gonna organize a general strike? This is not France. The unions have been busted, physicians see themselves as ‘health professionals’ – rather than as organized labor, and people by and large in America have been trained to view strikers as an inconvienence.

    The contribution of demonstrations as catalysts for change is an unknown. It is not a science as to how to crystallize a mass movement.

  5. joed said on March 19th, 2009 at 1:38pm #

    well, if that’s the case then quit yur’ whining and crying and find something useful to do. if you people ain’t got no idea of how to arrest yur govt. and you wont sacrifice anything, then stop whining and pretend like you are of some value. goddam dont ya’ get tired of crying! and please dont yell at me–i didnt do it. i am just pointing out how useless it is for you guys to hang around in the FREE SPEACH ZONE(DissidentVoice) and whine and cry. you have my suggestion on how to arrest the murderous thugs. but you gotta’ be willing to sacrifice. never mind, i am tired of preaching to a bunch of folks that dont get it.

  6. joed said on March 19th, 2009 at 1:44pm #

    and you dont need a mass movement. look at this link. one young woman shut down a flordia freeway at rush hour. masive problem.
    one little lady with the will to actually do something and the willingness to sacrifice if need be. this aint no mass move ment.
    goddam you people just refuse to do anything what the hell is going on. they puttin’ sumpin’ in da’ water over there in the states? you folks is messed-up bad.

  7. Barry99 said on March 19th, 2009 at 2:08pm #

    Joed – Thousands of shoes INEXPLICABLY dumped on the highway??? That is your idea of ‘useful’? Sounds like you just want a movement of disrupters with police cracking heads all along the way – and doing it with the approval of the public at large. It seems you need to rethink things.

  8. joed said on March 19th, 2009 at 2:28pm #

    well, nothing is going to change untill there are some people willing to fight for their rights. police are subject to cracked heads too! see, you kids dont have a clue about what it will take to get your country back. if you are not willing to sacrifice then stay in your FREE SPEACH ZONE(DissidentVoice) and whine and cry.
    fuck the approval of anybody when it comes to shuting down your shitty country. no, i dont, “…just want a movement of disrupters…”
    i want you people to live in justice and freedom from fear. but if you are not willing to sacrifice for justice then you do not deserve justice.
    the murderous thugs are not going to just hand you back your country. you will fight physically for your country or you will continue whining and crying, but they ain’t gonna’ just give it back.

  9. joed said on March 19th, 2009 at 2:30pm #


  10. Barry99 said on March 19th, 2009 at 3:24pm #

    So Joed – Just what country do you live in that has been freed and what did you do to make that happen? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Shoes, Bush, Iraq? Pardon the expression, but those shoes had no legs. That issue is over and done with – the guy is in jail, Iraq is a US imposed shit-hole as it already was, and Bush just signed a book deal for $6 million.

    But there ARE riots out there – food riots, job riots. And they have no connection with disruptive behavior – they are about people’s very existence. How those can be galvanized to effect change is the question. But it comes out of real need, not wacko ideas.

    In the late 80s I was part of a group that carried out seemingly arbitrary acts of disruption. One day we rushed Edward Teller on stage at NYU as he was engaged in a debate on the A-bomb. It was certainly fun – but nothing more – and those who came to hear Teller speak were ready to linch us.

    But again – tell me how you gained revolution in your country.

  11. joed said on March 19th, 2009 at 3:56pm #

    well, Barry99, good for you! i guess your world is just the way you want it so, screw the rest of’em. you’re having fun with the atom bomb–wow! iraq was a beautiful, fine place to raise a family before your amerika got ahold of it. show place of the middle east it was.
    well, your shitty country is headed there now too–well, most of you are. the bold people took your commonwealth and they are doing fine thanks to you.
    as far as my country goes, i consider myself a citizen of the earth, the same as the hon. louis farrakhan, malcom x and other thinking, concerned peoples. and remember Barry99–“while in rome do as the romanians”

  12. mebosa.ritchie said on March 19th, 2009 at 4:22pm #


  13. Barry99 said on March 19th, 2009 at 6:16pm #

    I don’t have any problem with you calling the US a shitty country. But my guess is that you either live in the US or want to. There’s no such thing as a citizen of the earth outside of some off-the-grid Amazonian or Papuan people, it’s a tacky cliche for anyone else to say that. You’re consuming the internet like the rest of us.
    But you have not said where it is that you are carrying out your *off-the-pigs!* revolution. By the way, Malcolm X is long dead.

  14. joed said on March 19th, 2009 at 7:48pm #

    barry99, it is a struggle for me everyday to overcome the crap and nonsense i learned as a young person. i feel fortunate that i am able to struggle and even make an occasional change. tribalism is a curse that can be overcome. doesn’t matter where a person lives. people are the same everywhere. except the amerikan people are in need of some real help. they are deaf-dumbandblind, but in a very tragic way. to many people in the world it feels like 9-11 everyday and amerika is very resonsible for a great amount of that terror. the amerikan people seem not to care or notice or some are pleased about creating death chaos and destruction. and, many feel morally rightous about it. this is very sick barry99, dont you agree! i would like to make things better, wouldn’t you. and i am frustrated and sad because i am not a leader or a follower and i am not creative about how to go about making things better. and i dont feel that i am effective at all in this arena. any way barry99. remember; while in rome do as the romanians.

  15. Myles Hoenig said on March 20th, 2009 at 3:22pm #

    It is unfortunate that Sen. Kennedy gets the best medical attention any Senator or person of his enormous wealth can afford. They should be treating him for his cancer in a prison hospital ward for his murder of Mary Jo.

    It absolutely astounds me that anyone who fought for peace and justice would be putting their faith in Obama. Haven’t you been punked enough?

  16. Barry99 said on March 20th, 2009 at 5:48pm #

    Americans may need more help than most – but it is not as if the rest of the world is basking in enlightenment. It’s a long hard struggle, we do what we can and we necessarily fall short. No one knows what the precise answer is – in fact, there may be no precise answer. When and if the revolution comes, you just have to recognize it in time to get on board.

    I remember during the Somoza regime the Communist Party of Nicaragua repeatedly insisted that Nicaragua was not ready for revolution – the people were not sufficiently conscious of their objective condition. Then the Sandinistas swept into power and CP-N was left sitting around their tables muttering about what just happened. Their train came in and they missed it.

  17. Suthiano said on March 20th, 2009 at 6:31pm #


  18. Suthiano said on March 20th, 2009 at 6:36pm #

    what’s going on?

    I try to post something and it is delayed indefinitely for approval, but when I just type “sgs” it lets me post instantly? What is going on? who is monitoring our posts!

  19. jw said on March 21st, 2009 at 10:35am #

    bunch of rich “progressives” yapping about things they don’t have a clue about. lemme guess, none of you (including the author) are without comfortable health insurance, yet you know the only solution is single payer. and it’s suddenly the doctors, the medical industry, who are our saviors. as someone who doesn’t have health insurance, i can tell you from MY experience, that private insurance are NOT the gist of the problem. yes, they are greedy swine, skimming off profits, but that is not the main show. it is the medical establishment, their suppliers, etc., who are responsible for outrageous, obscene costs, that have no rhyme or reason (except for their insatiable greed). they have a monopoly on something that is vitally important to everyone, and no-one is controlling them, or putting competition in place. yes we already have single payer — medicaid, medicare, are they controlling costs? no, they are corrupt programs of a corrupt government, who don’t want to be bothered with the root of the problem — costs. who are held in check and forced to obey by the very monopoly they are supposed to regulate and break up.

    let me repeat. i don’t have health insurance (or my family). yet i still have problems with health care that is totally unaffordable — health insurance companies are to blame for that? but i am not dealing with health insurance companies. i don’t have health insurance. is it seeping in? has any of you armchair philosophers (joed is right), you people with comfortable incomes and health insurance, EVER bothered to catalog the outrageous COSTS charged by the medical establishment for the littlest thing (not to mention double billing and triple billing, not to mention outright fraud up to high heavens)? Or the lack of competition? Or compared prices here and elsewhere, etc.? No, too much work, better spew out politically correct BS, whatever St. Nader tells you to think. Chanting is so much easier than investigating facts.

    don’t tell me single payer works in sweden. we don’t have that kind of government here. we have a govt of crooks by the crooks for the crooks, and the people don’t want to be bothered with keeping tabs on accountability. and no, people don’t read DV or believe a word you say, because they, correctly, see you as a bunch of crackpots with half-baked ideas, this article being an example of that. Written by idle rich people who want to feel good about themselves, by telling others how to live and think. But who have no clue as to what it is like in the trenches of life.

    yes, ok, i’ll give you this — mandating that we get insurance without fixing the underlying cost issues, that is not going to work either. or maybe it will. then we might actually have people in the streets. so maybe it’s a good plan after all.

  20. bozh said on March 21st, 2009 at 11:48am #

    it wld be nice if we wld know more about medical practices and doctors who treat us.
    we also need to know more about pharmaceutical labs which make medicine for us.
    however, we do swim in one genetic pool but live on several health care tiers. being in one genetic pool means that one can get a disease that another wld not. damn it, nature ain’t perfect.
    but to become ‘better’, more capable/honest/healthy, one has to pass the testing ground of which newly- arising being has no control nor knowledge of.
    so, one gets, diabetes? so what? who cares? that’s not my problem! oh, s/he just lazy/stupid, etc. is that the knowledge?
    i think that most DV commenters want a one-tier healthcare and one tier jurisprudence, among many other things.
    in jurisprudence, if you’re rich and can hire best lawyers/spies/researches etc., you may be found innocent.
    in US there may thousands of innocent people in jails. and thousands more die or suffer because of being to poor to buy insurance, etc.

    bringing topics into this that belong also to psychology and/or social science [people lying/cheating/stealing, etc.] is OK but not in order to stifle any opinion-making or fact-finding. tnx

  21. jacksmith said on March 24th, 2009 at 2:50am #

    Finally, the time has arrived to fix Americas Healthcare crisis, and Americas healthcare nightmare. Hundreds of thousands of you are killed needlessly every year by your healthcare delivery system in a rush to profit. And because of a rush to profit Hundreds of thousands more of you are needlessly dying from treatable illness that people in other developed and civilized countries don’t DIE! from. Rich, middle class, and poor alike. Insured, and uninsured. Men, women, children, and babies.

    Additionally, thousands more of you are driven into financial ruin, and bankruptcy just because you, or one of your loved ones got sick or injured. And all of this is happening at a time when America spends twice as much of it’s GDP (Gross Domestic Productivity) on health care than any other country in the developed world. Individual Americans spend about ten times as much on health care as any other people in the developed world. This is a CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY. AND IT MUST END!

    But before we can truly fix this healthcare crisis and disgrace, everyone needs to clearly understand what the problem is. And everyone needs to clearly understand the real enormity of the problem. The problem is that HEALTHCARE AND MEDICAL DELIVERY IN AMERICA IS SEVERELY CORRUPTED AND COMPROMISED BY GREED! AND THE PRIVATE FOR PROFIT MOTIVE. And it is corrupted, and compromised IN EVERY ASPECT, AND EVERY PLACE OF HEALTHCARE AND MEDICAL DELIVERY. Unfortunately for all Americans, compromised healthcare ALWAYS results in needless suffering, injury, disability, and or death. Which is exactly what is happening now in America in shocking numbers.

    Health care is NOT! a private for profit business. Healthcare is an essential public service. Like police, and fire. And healthcare is also a human right! PRIVATE FOR PROFIT HEALTHCARE IS AN OXYMORON, AND AN IMMORAL AND UNETHICAL PERVERSION OF HEALTHCARE AND HUMAN RIGHTS.

    So how do we fix this healthcare disgrace? I believe the fix for Americas healthcare disaster is essentially the same thing that every other developed country in the World has essentially done. “NOT FOR PROFIT, TAX PAYER SUPPORTED, SINGLE PAYER, AUTOMATIC, FREE UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE FOR ALL”. Essentially HR676 (enhanced, and improved medicare for all). Just like every other CIVILIZED! country in the developed World has. There is no other way to truly fix and reform our current disastrous healthcare delivery system.

    All Universal health care systems work best when everyone participates. But I know that the healthcare lobby, and some politicians will try and undermine “Not For Profit, Tax payer supported, Single payer, Automatic, Free Universal Healthcare for all” by falsely claiming that it will limit your choice, and require you to participate.

    So, I propose that everyone be included in the national plan unless they choose to opt out. If you opt out and need medical care the national plan will insure your provider that they will be reimbursed under the rules for members in the national plan. But those who opted out, and their insurer will be responsible for the FULL! cost to the national plan for providing your care if you or your private insurer fails to reimburse the provider or the national plan in a timely manor to at least the standards of the national plan.

    Including reporting you to credit agencies, withholding of taxes, leans, and garnishment of wages for unpaid medical bills. Just like you have now under private for profit healthcare, and private for profit health insurance.

    Further, people who opted out will be required to provide proof of financial responsibility for future illness or be required to participate in the national plan. And everyone with children will be required to participate in the national plan. Or provide proof of insurance coverage on each child to the standards of the national plan. It will be against the law to report anyone in the national plan to a credit agency for unpaid medical bills.

    Frankly, only a dope would want to opt out of the national plan and opt to keep our current disastrous private for profit medical, and insurance plans. But they will be free to choose. The most important thing is that the vast majority of Americans that want the protection, benefits, and higher quality of a universal national plan have that choice.

    You see, one of the most important aspects of a universal healthcare system is easy access, and patient protection. This is accomplished by having a single payer without a conflict of interest in patient care. And by having a payer who has the power to enforce minimum standards of excellence in healthcare delivery for everyone in the plan. This is much of what Medicare does now for senors. “Aeger Primo” (The patient comes first). Unfortunately in our healthcare system the patient comes last. We are just a peace of meat to them. Cash cows to be slaughtered for profit.

    So this is IT! my fellow Americans, My fellow human beings, My fellow World Citizens. And my fellow Cyber Warriors. 🙂 The time has come. D day. H hour. HEALTHCARE REFORM THIS YEAR! Let no one stand in our way. Contact your representative and tell them you want “Not For Profit, Tax Payer Supported, Single Payer, Automatic, Free Universal healthcare for all. And tell them you want that choice now. Tell them you want President Obama’s budget passed without delay. President Obama’s budget is brilliant. And exactly what is needed now.

    President Obama, and his allies will need all the support you can give them. The healthcare lobby will try to take out his people if they can, like they did with Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer. And they will try to neutralize President Obama’s popularity, and political power. Or they will try to take him down someway. Don’t stand for it. If they attack him. Go after them ten times harder and remove them from office. We had an election. And you the people chose President Obama’s leadership, and change agenda. Let no one in government disrespect the will of the American people and remain in office.

    SPREAD THE WORD! And talk it up with your families, friends, and coworkers. Keep ratcheting up the pressure until there is a ROAR! across America for “NOT FOR PROFIT, TAX PAYER SUPPORTED, SINGLE PAYER, AUTOMATIC, FREE UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE FOR ALL”.

    Let’s get this healthcare reform done now my fellow Americans. This year. Take no prisoners.

    God Bless All Of You

    Jack Smith — Working Class 🙂