James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway

In 1965, James Ridgeway helped launch the modern muckraking era by revealing that General Motors had hired private eyes to spy on an obscure consumer advocate named Ralph Nader. He worked for many years at the Village Voice, has written 16 books, and has codirected Blood in the Face, a film about the far right. In 2012, he was named a Soros Justice Media Fellow.

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Ted Kennedy and the Future of Liberalism

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 9:20 AM EDT

Ted Kennedy, who died late yesterday, was much, much more than the Liberal Lion of the Senate. He was all we had left. Even in sickness, he was the anchor for decent health care reform. He was the one man in Congress who could pull quarreling politicians into a united effort. (John McCain and Orrin Hatch were Kennedy best friends.)

We are left with weak, squabbling, visionless Democratic puppets and a President whose domestic reform policies are adrift—sliding towards the horizon with each passing day. The lost battle for Afghanistan. Seriously. The British. Then the Soviets. Now us. The phony victory on Wall Street, one bubble replacing another; health care in the hands of right wing screwballs at the town meetings. The very idea that Obama, amidst the rightwing anger of the town meetings, and with health care reform in flux, is vacationing on a huge estate at Martha Vineyard with the wealthiest of the wealthy, is smack out of the George Bush playbook.

So, without Kennedy, even as a shadow in the background, who will it be for health care reform? Max Baucus, pawn of the health care industry? Christopher Dodd, bag man for Wall Street? Lieberman, turncoat? Harry Reid?

To be sure there are decent senators—Dorgan,Conrad, Rockefeller, Levin, Harkin, Leahy. None of them with the knowledge, experience, and political acumen of Kennedy, though.

The flag will be at half mast across the country today. Not on Wall Street, where as the sun goes over the yardarm, you’ll be hearing the popping of corks.

This post first appeared on James Ridgeway's blog, Unsilent Generation.

Fear in the Heartland

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 12:20 PM EDT

The health care “debate” has been transformed into a confusing screaming match fueled by wild nativist fears. As Senator Chuck Grassley has found out at town meetings in Iowa, health care really is not the issue that’s on the minds of many. Instead, it’s all about the nation’s economic turmoil: People are hurting, and don’t see the stimulus plan helping them. From there, its a short leap to attacking the Federal Reserve, and what many perceive as a threatening, directionless federal government that is bent on controlling their daily lives.  And Grassley appears to be ready to capitalize on the anger:

Not everyone is coming to the town hall meetings because of health care. It’s kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Grassley said. “They’re seeing the stimulus not working. They’re seeing the Federal Reserve shoving money out of the airplane not working. They’re seeing big increases in the deficit coming. Then they see a trillion-dollar health-care bill, and they think it’s not good for the country.”

These fears remind me of the fears that ran through the Midwest more than 20 years ago, during the 1984 presidential election. Back then Walter Mondale was vainly fighting Ronald Reagan, against a backdrop of farm foreclosures,bank crackdowns, penny auctions, and fight back by rural people in the heartland. Then as now, people showed up in angry knots–not unlike today’s town meetings–at foreclosure s to shout down the auctioneers, trying to save a farm. The gun of choice at that time was the semi-automatic mini 14, which was held by some in the same esteem as the Colt 45 did back in the day. Some turned to the Bible, watched the skies for Soviet bombers, dug themselves into bunkers.

 

What Health Reform Could Look Like

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 11:00 AM EDT

As I have written previously, the most likely upshot of the health care debate is for Congress to adopt some version of health care "exchanges" based on the FEHBP, the Federal Employees Health Benefits program. Some people are calling the FEHBP a "public option," but that's not what it is. In fact, it doesn't even contain a public option. The whole reason it might be acceptable to conservatives is that it keeps the private insurance system intact. As described by Physicians for a National Health Program, FEHBP "is actually a mix of private health insurance plans that carry the same problems of private plans generally: administrative waste, restrictions on health care providers, inequities and inadequate cost controls."

In fact, the FEHBP was proposed back in the 1980s as an alternative to Teddy Kennedy’s universal health insurance campaign. That proposal, as Stephanie Mencimer wrote here last week, came from none other than the Heritage Foundation. So its credentials are spotless, or ought to be spotless in the eyes of mainstream and rightwing Republicans. Not even Dick Armey’s gang of patriots, agitating at town hall meetings, could call Heritage a socialist institution.

The FEHBP does require private insurance plans to meet certain standards, which could represent some small improvement over the present system, provided it survives as part of the final health reform plan. But the best plans offered under FEHBP aren't cheap, requiring steep contributions from the employee--so it also preserves the present system of unequal care depending on income.

You can get a glimpse of the best-case scenario that might result from a reform based on the FEHBP, in this exchange between Washington Post business writer Steven Pearlstein and a government employee living in Maryland who belongs to the Federal Health Plan:

Federal employee: I have a choice among many possible insurance plans. I have chosen one of the more expensive ones (I pay a little over 30% of the premiums) and have been very pleased thus far with the range of doctors that I can access and especially the speed with which my claims are processed. I recently called to ask if a procedure had been pre-approved and was informed within just a few seconds that my plan did not require pre-approval for that procedure. It is clear that the computers at the other end are online and the people answering questions are well-trained. Last year a scheduler at a testing center nearly cried with relief when she heard what my insurance plan was.

I presume that I get this excellent service in part because if I had a bad experience, I could switch to another provider during the open plan period. Unlike a person working for a private employer with a choice of perhaps two or three plans both from the same provider, who would have to appeal to the deaf ears of the employer's HR department, my choice is meaningful. I might have to wait out 13 months in a plan I didn't like, but that is it. No worries about pre-existing conditions, or qualifying for coverage or anything.

So, could this model actually work for the uninsured pool of people? Could the government demand that the insurance companies offer the same plans available to federal employees to the pool of uninsured or not let them participate in the program? Could it just be negotiated that way since the potential pool is so large and the premiums will be subsidized for some? Could non-profit cooperatives have the clout to get this?

Or do I only get service this good because the Senators and the Representatives are in the same plan that I am (or at least their staff are) and the insurance companies treat us better so they don't make the powerful people who share our plans angry?

Steven Pearlstein: The Federal Health Plan provides the model for the so-called exchanges that are at the center of the Democrats' health reform proposal. Everyone who buys insurance through the exchange would basically have the kind of choices you do, and be able to move around from plan to plan in a way creates an ongoing competition among the plans, not only on the issue of price but quality of service and depth of network, etc. That is the kind of competition that will improve the whole system and, to a degree, help to bring down cost growth.

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