How Lobbyists Control Health Care Policy

| Thu Mar. 16, 2006 12:22 PM PST

I believe the technical name for this sort of thing is Dingbat Kabuki. Yesterday Republicans in the Senate appeared to do something good and benevolent on the health care front when they voted to allow Medicare to use its vast bargaining power to negotiate lower drug prices. The GOP had originally forbidden the government to do this when it crafted the drug benefit back in 2003, succumbing to pressure—and lavish campaign contributions—from the pharmaceutical industry. Now, however, the party seems to be scared of a senior backlash over the entire Medicare fiasco, and wants to do something.

Well, sort of. Really, though, it's extremely unlikely that anything will come of this. What the Senate actually passed yesterday wasn't in any way a binding resolution or piece of legislation. It's merely an amendment to a budget resolution that "provides only guidance for future legislation." In other words, cheap talk. A quick prediction: This measure will never make it into law. The GOP would never, ever go against the wishes of Big Pharma, and this amendment is only meant to help the party look like it's trying to fix the disastrous Medicare drug benefit. Seniors, after all, tend to have a lot of influence when midterm elections roll around. Best to try to appease them, quietly.

That's not a bad prediction. For further proof that the GOP will only ever pass bills paid for and written by lobbyists, look no further than a second Los Angeles Times story on yet another health care vote. Yesterday a Senate Committee also approved "a bill that would preempt state laws that require insurance policies to cover specific services, such as maternity care and supplies for diabetics." It's a terrible idea for, you know, actual people. Guess who came up with it.

States require insurers to cover specific services because otherwise, those insurers could end up making certain services—like maternity care and supplies for diabetics—unaffordable for certain people. For their part, insurers have always complained that all those burdensome state requirements force them to raise premiums. Maybe they have some small point, but then again, they would say that, and the insurance industry is pretty much the last industry to get the benefit of the doubt, ever. They've also been complaining for years that an epidemic of malpractice lawsuits has driven up premiums—a line that's totally false. It was never even sort of true. On the bright side, the new bill, if passed, should help pad the industry's profit margins. And Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee can look forward to fatter re-election campaign chests.

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