Ask Quentin Young about Michael Moore’s new film “Sicko” and he refers to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” – literary works that focused attention on long-simmering issues and moved the nation beyond paralysis and inaction.
“This movie has the capacity to change the dialogue in this country,” said Young, national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Plan and a long-time advocate of health reform. He’s travelled with Moore to promote the film, including appearances before legislators in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
Young hopes a showing of “Sicko” for the Illinois General Assembly this week, hosted by Rep. Mary Flowers, chair of the House Health Committee, will encourage lawmakers to look at Flowers’s single-payer bill, the Health Care For All Illinois Act (HB 311).
Flowers’s bill would expand Medicare to cover everyone, redirecting public health funding (which accounts for over 60 percent of health spending) along with modest taxes to capture some of the money currently going to employer-sponsored private health plans, in order to finance a statewide single-payer plan that would cover all residents for all necessary medical care.
Cutting out administrative costs and profit margins for private health insurance would save the state $13 billion, Young said.
That’s the element that makes the difference between a single-payer plan and plans like those of Governor Blagojevich and leading Democratic candidates, which mix private and public funding.
Blagojevich’s $2 billion “Illinois Covered” proposal offers a complicated menu of state subsidies to help residents afford private health insurance, along with an expansion of Medicaid and Family Care. The proposal’s prospects for enactment have diminished steadily since it was unveiled.
“It’s a lousy bill,” Young said. “They admit it will only cover a third of the uninsured.” And the private “affordable” plans mandated by the state under the proposal would have lower premiums but higher co-pays and deductibles. “Such skimpy plans are insurance in name only.”
“We have to capture the money that’s squandered in administration,” he said. “Otherwise it won’t work.”
The new individual-mandate plan in Massachusetts, as well as the health care proposals of leading Democratic presidential candidates John Edwards and Barack Obama, have the same flaw, according to Young: while some set up public plans as alternatives, all leave the private employer-sponsored insurance system in place, which drains billions from available health care resources.
“They won’t work,” he says – they aren’t “economically viable” – and in the wake of failure they “leave the public ever more cynical about the ability to solve problems, particularly through government mechanisms.”
An admirer and early supporter of fellow Hyde Parker Obama, Young says the presidential candidate’s “miserable program” is “painful to me – not because I want him to be bolder and go down in flames, but because I want him to win, and this is a popular issue, and he could provide leadership on it.”
He’s hopeful that after the campaigns examine the polling on the issue, the race for the Democratic nomination will evolve into a contest over “who can be more single-payer than the other.” He pauses and adds, “That’s less utopian than it was before ‘Sicko.’”
Politicians proposing halfway measures are drawing the wrong lesson from the failure of health reform under the Clinton administration in 1993, Young said. Then, compromises and concessions that were intended to win support from the insurance industry weakened the proposal, “and when [the insurance groups] saw how susceptible it was, they double-crossed and started with the ‘Harry and Louise’ ads.”
Young recalls Hillary Clinton telling a colleague of his that single-payer wasn’t feasible; he adds that her proposal never got out of committee.
Excerpts from Newstip’s interview with Quentin Young:
It’s Michael Moore’s lesson that the problem is the insurance companies. They have huge, huge administrative costs, shockingly high salaries of executives, obscene marketing costs, whether for a drug that may do very little or even be dangerous or an insurance plan that’s full of loopholes – all these bottomless pits of costs that add nothing to health care, that detract from serious delivery of health care.
They’ve got a multi-hundred billion dollar honey pot, and the money to be made is astronomical, and they’re getting very good at how to make it which is, as [Moore] points out vividly, by denying care and finding reasons to keep people who are ill out of the system. It’s been a rollicking success for the profitmakers but it’s meant a steady, rapid disintegration of the American health system.
We can simplify the whole discussion – you either go with the private insurance companies or you get them out of the mix. And it’s important to point out, we don’t have to import from Canada or Britain or any other country, although we can learn lessons from them. We have a thing called Medicare in this country – it’s over 40 years going – and it is by any standard the best part of our whole health insurance scheme. And more to the point, by taking seniors and later all people who are fully disabled, it has taken the most costly, most difficult groups to cover, and it has done a magnificent job. Although the right-wing is constantly talking about it going broke, it’s required only tiny tweaks in the payment scheme and cost controls. It shows how single-payer allows you to live on in an environment which is going to get tougher.
So we have to decide how we’re going to move into the 21st century in terms of health care, and do you want a corporate system which is ever more skilled at extracting profits and letting 47 million [uninsured] people – and maybe 100 million ten years from now – go to hell? Or are you going to have a rational system which is proven, in this country in Medicare, and world-round in the single-payer variations that the industrialized and democratic countries have embraced.
The first, very feeble response (by single-payer opponents) to “Sicko” is to say that’s a government solution, which is even worse than what we’ve got. Well guess what, it ain’t worse than what we’ve got.
Take the American medical profession, which is not known for its progressive orientation. I would represent that my profession – still very conservative, even reactionary – nonetheless in its majority has learned that there’s something worse than the government, it’s called the corporation. And the polls show that well over 50 percent of doctors go for single-payer.
Not with the same enthusiasm I have; it’s that they recognize it’s the only answer to the corporate domination they feel in many ways. Endless paper pushing, having to plead with idiots at the end of the phone who have no knowledge of the case to get this test or allow this operation, or to plead for the patient when some genius in a company finds some reason to call something pre-existing – a whole rotten game, a dirty game and very serious.
But it’s having the desirable effect of making the American public aware of the impropriety of having a profit-seeking insurance system run the show.
[The Blagojevich proposal] has what they call individual mandates. These are code words. An individual mandate means you get everybody in by using the income tax mechanism to fine people who don’t have insurance.
That’s wrong-headed. First of all, you don’t want to have a universal system based on punitive measures. That’ll guarantee solid opposition and make the job of the opponents simple.
Second of all, it doesn’t have to go that way. The money is in the system. Goddamn it, we’re spending twice as much per capita as any other country in the world. America, the beautiful – it’s unpatriotic to say we can’t do it. But we have to capture the money that’s squandered on administration. That’s the hard one.
This is an article of faith. Their first commandment is, you cannot beat the insurance companies, therefore you have to bend the knee to them. Guess what, I wouldn’t be against it if it was a viable solution. It won’t work. That’s the whole American experience. It’s damaged goods to tell the American people we have to compromise, we hate to do it. It’s no compromise. It’s a sellout.