More fuel for the protesters: profiteering on health care

From what corner of hell did the obscene idea arise that providing health care for humans ought to be a profit-making enterprise?

Crosscut archive image.

Do as doctor says!

From what corner of hell did the obscene idea arise that providing health care for humans ought to be a profit-making enterprise?

Anyone who isn’t brain-dead has to have noticed the nascent Wall Street Rebellion unfolding across the nation. Hundreds of primarily young people have descended on New York and the commercial/financial districts of cities across the nation, including Seattle and Portland, to protest the economic crisis in America — especially the fact that young people can’t find jobs or are losing the ones they have.

To call the mounting outcry America’s version of the Arab Spring might be too much. But to underestimate its explosive potential may be the height of folly. The protests may peter out — the Wall Street crowd is hoping they will — but if they don’t they may reshape American politics and society in ways that will make the Tea Party movement look like an ice cream social.

The Wall Street protesters are beginning to raise some basic questions about how our society works or doesn’t work. Underneath their disparate slogans lie some nagging questions, especially about the current character of American-style capitalism and the kinds of values it both reflects and perpetuates. One such question belongs right alongside unemployment and mortgage foreclosures: From what corner of hell did the obscene idea arise that providing health care for humans ought to be a profit-making enterprise?

This is quite unlikely to be a question that the U.S. Supreme Court will consider this fall as it weighs in on the legality of the Obama health care program. It is, however, the fundamental question every American ought to be asking as Congress takes up the debate about health care costs and budget deficits.

While searching for answers, we might wish to take note of the fact that in 2009, at the height (or depth) of the recession, health insurance companies increased their profits by 56 percent, while simultaneously dropping insurance coverage for 2.7 million people, according to ABC News. Such maneuvers allowed the five largest insurers made a combined profit in 2009 of $12.2 billion.

The fact that the private health care “industry” (the very term is as revealing as it is noxious) can claim that health is a product to be bought and sold like automobiles, iPods, and ski equipment, exposes a basic moral flaw in the capitalistic ideal. It fuels and fans the notion that any human condition or circumstance, including those over which we have absolutely no control, can be subject to monetary exploitation by anyone who has the resources and the heartless capacity to do so. It’s perfectly legitimate to make millions on human disease and illness, if the ubiquitous “market” provides the opportunity.

The much-touted “market," by the way, doesn’t function very well when it comes to buying and selling health care. In the December, 2005 issue of the American Journal of Medicine, two Harvard public health specialists reported on a study that found non-for-profit health plans provided significantly higher quality of care for enrollees than for-profit plans in four important clinical service areas. If the hallowed “market” were functioning as its advocates claim, such a report would drive a well-deserved stake through the heart of for-profit health enterprises.

That it hasn’t driven such a stake is an indication of the pervasive influence of health care lobbyists on Congress, which insures that the market functions in the health care industry’s favor no matter what the facts are. When the CEO of the largest private for-profit health care company in the United States — who was forced to resign amid a scandal over Medicare billing practices in which his company admitted to 14 felonies and agreed to pay the federal government over $600 million — can be elected as governor of Florida, what hope have we?

Do not read this article as an attack on the medical profession and its practitioners. Countless doctors, nurses, laboratory specialists, researchers and others in the medical field work long hours, after having devoted years to training, in order to carry out the healing arts. The object of our wrath ought to be the fat cats with the bulging wallets who have decided that our ills and ailments are a lucrative way for them to make even bigger bucks, who then buy up hospitals and promote heath care plans the way one would peddle pet food or weight loss programs. They ought to go to the top of the list of America’s Least Wanted.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors