Thursday, December 3, 2009

Looking at Health Reform in the US

Wendell Potter, who was formerly the head of public relations for CIGNA, has been very visible on the lecture and testimony circuits this year given that he has a lot to say about how US health insurance companies operate. He gave a long interview with a reporter from Le Monde that was published in that paper on November 24th. The page three interview had a headline that spread across the entire page: “Ce lobby ne désarmera pas,” meaning the insurance companies weren’t giving up their fight to protect their right to “put profit before the well being of patients.” Potter went on to say how the foolish claims of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman that health reform is socialism are messages that have been developed and audience tested by the insurance companies themselves. He emphasizes the huge investment the insurance companies are making in shaping public opinion about health reform emphasizing that their priority is to protect profits.

The Potter interview is just a part of the fairly extensive coverage the French press is giving to health reform in the United States. The tenor of the coverage is generally objective and is often treated as an opportunity to provide a lesson about how American politics operates. Responses from French readers are a bit less measured: one remarked in a comment on the Le Monde interview that Americans are “…anesthetized by consumerism” and “Don’t deserve Obama.”

A French blogger (CAVEAT EMPTOR) tried to make the point that health reform in the US (“The mother of all Obama’s reforms") affected everyone because it provided a chance to show that market systems and market justice broke down when it came to health care and this could be the wedge that would help temper the problems of capitalism. That perception that capitalism was the root cause of the problems with American health care has been repeated fairly often in commentary in France. But, that type of discussion about the relative benefits of socialism and capitalism is a more relevant question in Europe where the terms have less argumentative freight than here in the US—and there are quite viable socialist parties.

An interesting comment by one blogger focused on the similarity between the US Medicare program and the Secu, or social security system in France which finances health care. The Secu provides health care payments with an administrative cost of 3.5-4% compared to the 20-30% that many say applies to for-profit insurance companies in the US. But then, Medicare claims 2-3% to be their cost of administration. (The French data come from the Report of the “Commission des Comptes” of the Social Security System, Results 2008, Predictions, 2009).

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