Oysters for Health Care
By: Bill Moyers and Michael Winship,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
July 18, 2009
This is a story of health care and two Americans; a
tale of two citizens, if you will.
Obama as our next surgeon general, charged with
educating Americans on medical issues and overseeing
first African-American woman to head a state medical
society, a member of the board of trustees of the
American Medical Association and last year was named
the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius award."
But more important, she's a country doctor, a family
physician along the
poor and uninsured - white, black and Asian. After
Hurricane Katrina destroyed her clinic - the second
time a hurricane had done so - she mortgaged her own
home to rebuild it. The day it was to reopen, a fire
burned the clinic to the ground. Moving to a trailer,
Dr. Benjamin and her staff never missed a day of work.
Stan Wright, the tobacco-chewing mayor of Bayou La
Batre, the small shrimp-fishing community in which Dr.
Benjamin practices, told National Public Radio, "She'll
do whatever she's gotta do to make sure everyone's
taken care of."
Benjamin will no doubt bring that same ethic to the
fight for health care reform. When President Obama
announced her nomination in a Rose Garden ceremony
Monday, Dr. Benjamin said, "These are trying times in
the health care field, and as a nation, we have reached
a sobering realization. Our health care system simply
cannot continue on the path that we're on. Millions of
Americans can't afford health insurance or they don't
have the basic health services available where they
live." Although the clinic has not been able to give
Dr. Benjamin a salary for years - Mayor Wright says
she's owed over $300,000 - she buys medicine for her
patients out of her own pocket.
In fact, many of the folks in
town are so poor that sometimes she's paid with a pint
of oysters or a couple of fish. She's fine with that.
And she makes house calls.
Now meet H. Edward Hanway, chairman and CEO of CIGNA,
the country's fourth-largest insurance company. At the
beginning of the year, CIGNA blamed hard economic times
when it announced the layoff of 1,100 employees, but it
reported first-quarter profits of $208 million on
revenues of nearly $5 billion. Mr. Hanway has announced
his retirement at the end of the year, and the living
will be easy for him, financially at least. He made
$11.4 million in 2008, according to The Associated
Press, and some years more than that.
That's a lot of oysters, although he lags behind Ron
Williams, CEO of Aetna Insurance, who made $17.4
million last year, or John Hammergren, the head of
McKesson, the biggest health care company in the world.
His compensation was $29.7 million.
Here's the difference. To Dr.
care is a public service, helping people in need with
grace and compassion. To Ed Hanway and his highly paid
friends, it's big business, a commodity to be sold to
those who can afford it. And woe to anyone who gets
between them and the profits they reap from sick people.
That's what Wendell Potter, the former CIGNA executive
turned health care reform advocate, told us on last
week's edition of "Bill Moyers Journal."
"Just about every time there has been significant
legislation before Congress, the industry has been able
to kill it," he said. "Yeah, the status quo works for
them. They don't like to have any regulation forced on
them or laws forced on them. They don't want to have
any competition from the federal government, or any
additional regulation from the federal government. They
say they will accept it. But the behavior is that they will not."
As we reported last week, that behavior includes
spending nearly a million and a half a day to make sure
health care reform comes out their way. Over the years,
they've lavished millions on the politicians who are
writing and voting on health care reform. Now it's payback time.
Proposed legislation finally is coming out of House and
Senate committees, and Thursday's
reported "signs that the debate was moving into a more
bruising phase in which insurance companies, hospitals
and others fight to shape the details of legislative
provisions that affect them."
It's going to get ugly, especially now that some
Democrats, according to ABC News, are contemplating new
taxes on health insurance and pharmaceutical companies
to help pay for reform, perhaps as much as $100 billion worth.
In other words, no more Mister Nice Guy. Those TV
commercials you've been seeing from the health care
companies about their generosity and miracles of modern
medicine are about to change, as the opposition shifts
gears from charm to alarm. It's the war against the
This time, don't let them scare you. "It should not be
this hard for doctors and other health care providers
to care for their patients," Dr.
when she was nominated this week. "It shouldn't be this
expensive for Americans to get health care in this country."
Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is
senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
"Bill Moyers Journal," which airs Friday nights on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at
www.pbs.org/moyers. Research provided by producer Gail
Ablow and associate producer Julia Conley.