True health care reform requires campaign finance reform

By Zenei Cortez, Commentary

One important lesson we can learn from the year long debate on healthcare reform is that big special interest money is still corrupting our political process and our democracy.

Lost amid the clamor over public option and cost was all the money flying around behind the scenes. Over the first nine months of this year, the nation's top 13 private health insurers and their trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) spent nearly $23 million in federal lobbying to tilt reform in their direction.

Following passage of the House bill, the same analysts for the Public Campaign Action found that House members voting against the bill received, on average, 24 percent more in campaign money than those who voted for it.

Their goal, to maintain the status quo of a shattered system that pads insurers' profits, or to at least steer the federal legislation to limit restrictions on abusive insurance practices while assuring they line up millions of new customers.

Is it any wonder that even with a number of positive reforms in the recent House bill in particular, most notably expansion of Medicaid, reduced pharmaceutical costs for seniors, and increased public health programs, that insurance companies still would come out ahead with billions of dollars in added revenues from the new mandate requiring people to buy private insurance and few restraints on insurance pricing practices?

In California, the trend is the same, as drug companies, the insurance industry, HMOs, hospitals, and nursing homes have contributed over $280 million to candidates and initiatives since 2000, distorting public policy to their gain and to the detriment of patients.

Nurses have an up-close view of what health industry profiteering means for our families. On a daily basis, we see people forced to seek care in emergency rooms because they can't afford insurance or skip doctor's visits due to high out-of-pocket costs. We see those suffering from chronic conditions because they can't pay for the medicines their doctors ordered. We're tired of having the insurance industry come between us and the care our patients need.

The political influence wielded by insurers, symbolized by their lobbying expenditures and campaign donations, has prevented more sweeping reform, such as expanding and updating Medicare to cover all Americans, a change that would break the industry's stranglehold on our health care and encourage more effective efforts to contain costs and improve outcomes.

It's not just the insurers, of course. Pharmaceutical firms, hospital chains, medical suppliers, biotech firms, and other wealthy healthcare corporations have made the healthcare industry the leading spender in federal lobbying the past decade.

Broader health care reform may remain elusive until elected officials begin representing voters, not industry lobbyists. That's why California voters should help lay the foundation for reform by passing the California Fair Elections Act on the June 2010 ballot.

Authored by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the measure asks voters to establish a voluntary pilot project for California's secretary of state races in 2014 and 2018 allowing candidates to qualify for public financing of their campaigns if they demonstrate a broad base of support and agree to strict spending prohibitions. The pilot program would be funded primarily by fees on lobbyists, lobbying firms and lobbyist employers, with no taxpayer dollars going to candidates.

A recent statewide survey shows likely voters favor adopting the CFEA's pilot program for Secretary of State elections by a nearly three-to-one ratio, with 63% in favor and strong support from voters of every party and every geographic region of the state.

Healthcare is only one of many important arenas of public policy poorly served by the intrusive interest of the wealthiest interests. From energy to environmental protections to workplace safety to other public benefits, our political system is clearly broken and in need of reforms that would more likely come if the corrupting role of money in politics was abated.

It's long past time to reclaim our electoral process so that our officials serve voters, not the biggest industry donors. Californians are poised to help start that movement by voting for the California Fair Elections Act in June 2010 elections.

Zenei Cortez, RN is co-president of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, one of the nation's premiere nurses' organizations and health care unions.

See the article on California Progress Report website

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

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