Sunday, June 26, 2016

Private Profit and the Public's Health: Which is More Important?

Health care is pretty complicated, and insurance coverage is even harder to understand.This is the message that comes through clearly from the interviews being done by Dr. Paul Gordon and recorded on his blog, Dr. Gordon is taking a unique sabbatical, riding his bicycle across the country from Washington (DC) to Washington (state), interviewing regular people, mostly in caf├ęs and such, about their take on Obamacare. 

The economic status of these people varies from poor to pretty well-off (but none really wealthy), from well insured to uninsured. Their political perspectives range from “everyone should be covered” to “benefits just make people lazy”. Three recent quotes: ‘People use Medicaid as a crutch’, ‘You can’t penalize someone for not having health insurance when it’s so expensive and the economy is doing so poorly’, ‘Here’s my take on it – everyone should have insurance’. What they share with each other, and with most of us, is a general lack of understanding of how Obamacare works (or doesn’t) and why. The flaws in Obamacare are the result of the political tradeoffs that allowed insurance companies to continue to have control and make huge profits, but this is often not clear to most people.

Here is something that is easy to understand, however: when you call “911” as you have been trained to do in an emergency, and they don’t come. Or they don’t come for a long time. Or they come with inadequate supplies. Who do you get angry with when you, or your loved one, dies? The government? They are surely in part at fault, even though they probably contracted the service out, to save money, probably because voters want to pay less tax. But there is another reason, explained in an excellent special article in the New York Times, When you dial 911 and Wall St. answers” (June 26, 2016). The piece, by Danielle Ivory, Ben Protess, and Kitty Bennett, details how many city services, including ambulance services, are provided by companies that are owned by “private equity firms”. These are companies whose investment capital comes from wealthy individuals and particularly from pension funds, unlike banks whose money comes from depositors. They are even less regulated than banks, and thus more able to pursue their core mission, making profit:
Unlike other for-profit companies, which often have years of experience making a product or offering a service, private equity is primarily skilled in making money. And in many of these businesses, The Times found, private equity firms applied a sophisticated moneymaking playbook: a mix of cost cuts, price increases, lobbying and litigation.

Whoa. This is starting to get complicated again. Banks vs. “private equity” vs. just plain old for-profit businesses? They are really just different forms of for-profit, and provide a stepwise progression, from public services operated by government for the benefit of the people, to private companies that are contracted by government to do a service but might care about doing it well, to having those companies owned by banks who really just want to make a profit, to having them owned by private equity companies who care about nothing but making a profit. The photo accompanying the Times article is of Lynn Tilton, owner of Patriarch Partners (an ironic name, given that she is a woman), which owned the emergency services company TransCare that served many East Coast communities. TransCare went bankrupt, leaving those communities without emergency medical services. Ms. Tilton’s picture is accompanied by the quote from her reality television stint “It’s only men I strip and flip.” As a poster child, she could become the Martin Shkreli of ripping off necessary public services the way he was of ripping off consumers of life-saving drugs.

The business of America,” Calvin Coolidge is often paraphrased as saying, “is business.” This perspective, that it is not about doing things that are best for the American people, is based in a belief that capitalism – “business” – will, through the magic of the market, eventually meet those needs. OK, maybe not those of people at the margins, people too poor to buy, so maybe we need a safety net. But most people. A similar statement appeared today in the print edition of the Kansas City Star from KC Mayor Sly James, discussing the controversy over replacing the terminals at Kansas City International Airport with one big, new terminal. Surveys consistently show that the large majority of Kansas Citians (84% in this article, “Regarding KCI’s future, city ponders a new flight path”) like the current arrangement, with short security lines and easy access in and out from one story terminals, but the airlines and big businesses do not. In the large-type quote accompanying his picture in the print edition (but, along with the photo, left out of the online edition), Mayor James said “The people of this city need to be convinced of what I believe is a basic reality, that this airport is about a lot more than ‘how fast can you get out of your car and get to your gate?’” Right. Business interests first. Take that, 84% of Kansas Citians!

Because they most obviously involve life and death, emergency medical services and firefighting (yes, firefighting too has been contracted out to companies owned by private equity firms!) get the greatest play in the Times article, but many other services (like water!) are in the same situation: controlled by companies whose goal is to make a profit rather than to provide effective service for people. This is what happens when municipalities are starved of funds because people vote to cut taxes.

Whether it is health insurance or emergency medical services or municipal water, the system becomes very complicated and hard to understand when it is trying to meet conflicting agendas. When the need for people to receive critical, health-producing service (fire and police protection, clean water, garbage collection, ambulances) is compromised by provisions built into contracts (or the law) for companies (insurance companies, banks, private equity firms) to make profit. I guess it is fine if these services can be effectively and reliably provided by for-profit companies, but when their pursuit of profit through “a mix of cost cuts, price increases, lobbying and litigation” conflict with actually providing services, there is a big problem. In the case of emergency medical services, the problem was that “…many newly insured Americans turned out to be on Medicaid, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Medicaid restricts some of the most aggressive billing tactics.”

A variety of other difficult to understand strategies are also employed at the macro level to place the interests of wealthy corporations above those of the people. These include the unlimited political contributions permitted by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, incredible gerrymandering of congressional districts so that we have states where the majority of voters vote for Democrats but most districts are solidly Republican (see the New York Times Book Review Where votes go to die”, June 26, 2016), and the provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that prevent national governments from regulating multi-national corporations.

We could solve this if there was a single, over-arching principle, always codified into law, that the interests of the people as a whole always trumps the profit potential of corporations. I vote for that.

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