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Deleting Corporate Power: Dominant Media’s Superficial Coverage of Problems with Obamacare

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by Paul Street

Corporate media criticism of ObamaCare is mainly limited to the failures of its website. But the whole machinery has been rotten from its conception in a right-wing think tank. ObamaCare “is dedicated to a vision of ‘change’ that leaves the corporate and financial oligarchy free to extort massive profits.” It is working quite well for the insurance giants, whose stocks are up by 200%-300%.

Deleting Corporate Power: Dominant Media’s Superficial Coverage of Problems with Obamacare

by Paul Street

This article previously appeared in Znet.

The bill left the private insurance and drug corporations in parasitic, profit-extracting control of the nation’s absurdly expensive health care system.”

One of the many ways in which corporate news media functions to serve concentrated wealth and power is to focus the coverage of current events on relatively superficial matters removed from core questions relating to the fundamental problem of who owns and rules society. Thus, “mainstream” election coverage and commentary deals mainly with the latest “horse race” details on which major party candidate seems to be winning, candidate gaffes and foibles, and numerous other bits of campaign trivia. It ignores the fundamental problem that all but a very few viable candidates are funded by the same “unelected dictatorship” of big corporate and financial money – an elite class that essentially owns and operates the electoral racetrack and invests in parties and candidates to receive profit-friendly policy outcomes from the winners. 

Nightly news crime reporting gives the latest grim facts on inner-city shootings and murder. It deletes the critical and related contexts of capitalist abandonment and societal racism that give rise to endemic despair, gang formation, and violence in the nation’s savagely de-industrialized and poverty-ridden ghettoes and barrios. 

The nightly news weather segment reports the latest unseasonably warm temperatures and forecasts and incidents of extreme weather. It makes no reference to the grave and underlying problem of anthropogenic global warming, rooted in contemporary capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels and endless growth. 

News on American military action abroad focuses on killings and casualties, generally repeating Pentagon and White House talking points and ignoring the broader corporate interests being served and the deeper related imperial agenda guiding that action.

Health Glitches Tarnish Obama” 

Economic and policy news, both foreign and domestic, is reported at a shallow level, without serious reference to the wealthy investor class and corporations that drive and direct market trends and government actions under the aforementioned dictatorship. 

An excellent example is found in “mainstream” media’s coverage of the so called Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as “Obamacare”) – U.S. President Barack Obama’s signature health insurance “reform” – in the fall of 2013. The narrow focus of the reigning coverage was epitomized by a front-page Wall Street Journal article in early November:

“Health Glitches Tarnish Obama”

“President Barack Obama, bogged down by problems with his signature health-care problem, is seeing both his approval and personal-favorability ratings with Americas sag. 

“During past turbulence in Washington, Americans’ approval of the job Mr. Obama is doings has dipped. But in those stretches, Mr. Obama was buoyed by voters’ general admiration for him as a person and by their trust in his credibility. 

“That has changed recently, particularly as thousands of Americans lose their insurance coverage under the health law’s rollout, despite the president’s pledge that anyone who liked their current plan could keep it.

“The president has apologized to Americans about the insurance-cancellation notices, and he is taking other steps to shore up his political standing. But if his reservoir of personal goodwill continues to diminish, it could hamper him at a time when his administration tries to repair the insurance web site on which much of the Affordable Care Act rests, and as it considers administrative changes to better implement the health law.” 

“…only 41% of Americans viewed Mr. Obama in a late October Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, with 45% holding a negative impression of him….Obama’s all-time low as president – and the first time more people saw him negatively than positively…..[Still] Mr. Obama says he has retained the public’s confidence’ [and]….has asked supporters for time and patience: ‘Sometimes I worry, because everybody had such a fun experience in ’08, at least, that’s how it seemed in retrospect…And ‘yes we can’ and the posters, et cetera – sometimes I worry that people forget change in this country has always been hard.’” [1]

Typical of the dominant mass media’s highly personalized “horse race” approach to current events, the Wall Street Journal focused on two technical and programmatic “glitches” in the ACA’s implementation – difficulties with the functioning of the bill’s insurance market web site and the cancellation of existing healthcare plans their holders did not wish to drop – and above all on the impact of those malfunctions on the president’s political standing.  

The Health Insurers Have Already Won” (August 2009) 

To be sure, Obamacare’s hitches and their political impact were and remain technically newsworthy. They are quite severe and practically scandalous in ways that are relevant both to Obama’s plummeting popularity and to the deadly distrust of government that has been instilled in the populace or many years. Still, there’s a much bigger story, intimately connected to the taboo question of who owns and rules society, hidden by the horserace journalism: the abjectly corporatist and undemocratic nature of the ACA, with or without glitches. 

Here we need to think back further than the latest news cycle – back, say, to the ascendancy of Obama. The silver-tongued and “charismatic” (so they said) Obama swept into the White House on the (false) promises (among other things) to deliver universal health care and to free ordinary people from the tyranny of the giant private health and drug companies. Having campaigned on a pledge to let all voices be heard in a spirit of openness and conciliation, he then proceeded to exclude serious – that is, single-payer (Improved Medicare for All) – activists from even a tiny seat at the edge of the table of the health care reform process he advanced as the signature priority of his presidency. While Obama golfed and confabbed with leading private insurance and pharmaceutical executives and lobbyists, the venerable black Congressman and single payer advocate John Conyers (D-MI) and Obama’s own “good friend” Dr. Quentin Young (a longstanding single-payer proponent) had to fight even to get invited to the White House’s Health Care Summit.  There they were treated like forgotten stepchildren despite the curious fact that they represented the policy perspective of the nation’s purportedly sovereign citizenry. It was brutal, consistent with the advice of his corporatist chief-of-staff, the right wing Democrat Rahm Emmanuel: “ignore the progressives.”

The corporatist nature of the Affordable Health Care Act was a foregone conclusion.”

The health “reform” that passed in early 2010 reflected the advice. It could have been called the “All Power to the Six Leading Insurance Companies and Big Pharma Act.” The bill left the private insurance and drug corporations in parasitic, profit-extracting control of the nation’s absurdly expensive health care system, whose costs are pushed up mainly by the insurance syndicates’ giant investment in marketing, tracking, and denial of service. These giant socio-pathological firms were happy to concede on matters like giving up their right to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions as long as the federal government would offer no competing public plans and all Americans would be compelled to purchase private health insurance.

The corporatist nature of the “Affordable Health Care Act” (AHCA) was a foregone conclusion, thanks to the unelected dictatorship of big capital, which strangles all potentially progressive policy in the corporate-state cradle. Knowing the authoritarian score, Business Week candidly told is affluent readers that “The Health Insurers Have Already Won” in early August of 2009. As the magazine’s health care correspondents Chad Tehrune and Keith Epstein explained:

“As the health reform fight shifts this month from a vacationing Washington to congressional districts and local airwaves around the country, much more of the battle than most people realize is already over. The likely victors are insurance giants such as UnitedHealth Group, Aetna, and WellPoint. The carriers have succeeded in redefining the terms of the reform debate to such a degree that no matter what specifics emerge in the voluminous bill Congress may send to President Obama this fall, the insurance industry will emerge more profitable. Health reform could come with a $1 trillion price tag over the next decade, and it may complicate matters for some large employers. But insurance CEOs ought to be smiling.”

“…The [insurance] industry has already accomplished its goal of at least curbing, and maybe blocking any new publicly administered insurance program that could grab market share from the corporations that dominate the business (emphasis added).” [2]

The key point for the corporate insurance bosses was to block any public insurance competition or alternative. They were ready to give on “pre-existing conditions,” lifetime benefit caps and the like in order to do that. They knew that “reform” was in the air and had support from many large business, political, and professional interests, not just the nation’s quaintly excited citizenry. A popular new president had staked his reputation and perhaps his re-election chances on some (almost any) version of “health care reform” being passed in his name. Something was going to happen, the big private insurance and drug protection outfits knew. Their goal was to “redefine” and set the terms in a way that left core corporate prerogatives unchallenged by popular public alternatives.

In January of 2009 found that 59 percent of Americans supported a single-payer health insurance program.”

That goal was achieved early on and in standard defiance of irrelevant public opinion. Contrary to politicians’ and dominant (corporate) media pundits’ insistent claim that public insurance lacked popular support, a CBS-New York Times polls in January of 2009 found that 59 percent of Americans supported a single-payer health insurance program. (The exact same percentage of doctors supported the same system in an April 2009 poll). In a poll conducted in late September of 2009, 65 percent of more than 1,000 Americans randomly surveyed by CBS and the Times responded affirmatively to the following question: “Would you favor or oppose the government offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan – something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and over get – that would compete with private health insurance plans?” [2A]They did so with good reason. [3]

(Of course, none of this ugly plutocratic record stops the Orwellian right wing propaganda machine from insistently and absurdly calling “Obamacare” dangerously “socialistic” and even “Marxist.” The right propagandists will never inform those they egg into neo-McCarthyite dread that Obama’s “radical leftist” insurance bill is based on the legislative proposals of the Republican Heritage Foundation in the 1990s. Modeled largely on a state-level plan that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney passed and oversaw as governor of Massachusetts, it is dedicated to a vision of “change” that leaves the corporate and financial oligarchy free to extort massive profits that drive health care costs to the breaking point for individuals, families, communities, non-profits, small businesses, and government. Touting his record as a “centrist” at the Associated Press luncheon last year, Obama himself boasted that the ACA was taken from the Republicans in an effort to privilege what he called “market solutions” over “government solutions” in addressing the nation’s problems.)[4]

An Investment Banker Speaks: “Obama’s Sellout of the Public Interest” 

You don’t have to be leftist to be concerned about the regressive and corporatist nature of the “A”CA. Last October, Robert Lenzner, a veteran New York investment banker and a staff writer at no less capitalist a journal than Forbes, expressed his hope that that the ACA will someday be reformed “for the benefit of the 300 million, not just the millions of lucky shareholders who may have understood the ramification of ObamaCare, which was to multiply the profits of five giant insurance companies, just as the major bank oligopoly was rewarded by the federal bailouts and Fed monetary policy.” 

Formerly, Lenzner was National Editor and Senior Editor at Forbes Magazine, New York Bureau Chief of The Boston Globe and Wall Street correspondent of The Economist. By his highly informed and strategically placed account, the profit-inflating “ramification” has been amply demonstrated: 

“So far in 2013 the value of the S& P health insurance index has gained 43%. That’s more than double the gains made in the broad stock market index, the S & P 500. The shares of CIGNA are up 63%, Wellpoint 47% and United Healthcare 28%. And if you go back to the early 2010 passage of ObamaCare, you will find that Obama’s sellout of the public interest has allowed the public companies the ability to raise their premiums, especially on small business, dramatically multiply their profits and send the value of their common stocks up by 200%-300%. This is bloody scandalous and should be a cause for concern even as the Republican opponents of the bill threaten the close-down of the government.”[5] 

The U.S. founder John Jay once remarked that those who own American society ought to run it. In health care as in so many other policy areas (Lenzner is right to mention the bank bailouts but the point extends across the board) more than 220 years later, Jay’s wish is no idle desire. The consequences are disastrous, including a health care system that remains outrageously expensive and notoriously inadequate at one and the same time. Despite spending more than twice as much on health care as the rest of the world’s industrialized nations ($8,160 per capita), the United States performs poorly in comparison on major health indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality and immunization rates. The solution, long understood by serious health reformers and embraced by most Americans for many years, is to replace the corporate insurance syndicate with federal government health insurance on the single-payer model – Improved Medicare for All (See endnote 3 for specifics). That basic social-democratic and majority-supported solution was kicked to the curb by Obama and the rest of the nation’s ruling class from the beginning of his administration and indeed well before. 

Yes, Mr. President, “change in this country has always been hard.” It is made difficult in part by deceptive, fake-progressive Democrats, embodiments of what the formerly Left Christopher Hitchens aptly described (in his book on the arch-corporatist neoliberal Clintons) as “the essence of American politics…the manipulation of populism by elitism.” 

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is the author of many books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

Selected Endnotes

1. WSJ, November 11, 2013, A1, A4.

2. Chad Terhune and Keith Epstein, “The Health Insurers Have Already Won,” Business Week, August 6, 2009. 

2A. New York Times-CBS Poll, “Confusion Over Health Care,” survey of 1,042 adults, September 19-23, question number 57, p. 15 of 26, poll results at http://documents.nytimes.com/new-york-times-cbs-news-poll-confusion-over-health-care-tepid-support-for-war#p=15 

3. As Physicians for a National Health Program explain: “The reason we spend more and get less than the rest of the world is because we have a patchwork system of for-profit payers. Private insurers necessarily waste health dollars on things that have nothing to do with care: overhead, underwriting, billing, sales and marketing departments as well as huge profits and exorbitant executive pay. Doctors and hospitals must maintain costly administrative staffs to deal with the bureaucracy. As a result, administration consumes one-third (31 percent) of Americans’ health dollars, most of which is waste….Single-payer financing is the only way to recapture this wasted money. The potential savings on paperwork, more than $400 billion per year, are enough to provide comprehensive coverage to everyone without paying any more than we already do…Under a single-payer system, all Americans would be covered for all medically necessary services, including: doctor, hospital, preventive, long-term care, mental health, reproductive health care, dental, vision, prescription drug and medical supply costs. Patients would no longer face financial barriers to care such as co-pays and deductibles, and would regain free choice of doctor and hospital. Doctors would regain autonomy over patient care….Physicians would be paid fee-for-service according to a negotiated formulary or receive salary from a hospital or nonprofit HMO / group practice. Hospitals would receive a global budget for operating expenses. Health facilities and expensive equipment purchases would be managed by regional health planning boards…A single-payer system would be financed by eliminating private insurers and recapturing their administrative waste. Modest new taxes, based on ability to pay, would replace premiums and out-of-pocket payments currently paid by individuals and business. Costs would be controlled through negotiated fees, global budgeting and bulk purchasing.” http://www.pnhp.org/facts/single-payer-resources 

4. Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at Associated Press Luncheon,” Washington D.C. (April 3, 2012), read online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/04/03/remarks-president-associated-press-luncheon. “I think it’s important to put the current debate in some historical context,” Obama told reporters in the Q&A. “Cap and trade was originally proposed by conservatives and Republicans as a market-based solution to solving environmental problems…Health care, which is in the news right now — there’s a reason why there’s a little bit of confusion in the Republican primary about health care and the individual mandate since it originated as a conservative idea to preserve the private marketplace in health care while still assuring that everybody got covered, in contrast to a single-payer plan. Now, suddenly, this is some socialist overreach….So as all of you are doing your reporting, I think it’s important to remember that the positions I’m taking now on the budget and a host of other issues, if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, would have been considered squarely centrist positions.

5. Robert Lenzner, Forbes Staff, “ObamaCare Enriches Only The Health Insurance Giants and Their Shareholders,” read online at

http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertlenzner/2013/10/01/obamacare-enriches-only-the-health-insurance-giants-and-their-shareholders/ Thanks to Vincent Kelly of Grinnell College for alerting me to this source.  

 

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