The inside story of how Obamacare became an insurance-industry bailout

By David Sirota , written on January 15, 2014

From The News Desk

As businesses and consumers realize that President Obama's health care bill hasn't simplified the health care system but instead strengthened the power of health insurance companies, there's been a resurgence of interest in the far more efficient and cost-effective single-payer model that every other industrialized country has. But with the private-insurance-dominated U.S. health care system ranking so poorly in comparison to single-payer systems, and with so much evidence that a single-payer system is better for consumers and businesses, why did Congress not even discuss single-payer during the health care debate of 2009?

Now, thanks to today's MSNBC report on a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, we know part of the answer: President Obama and his aides worked to preemptively snuff out any discussion of such a system.

As I previously reported for NSFWCORP, Obama's bill was deliberately designed as a massive giveaway to the health insurance companies. Many partisan Democrats have claimed that this ended up being the case because the president was forced against his will to acquiesce.  That historical revisionism, however, is debunked in a key passage of MSNBC's new profile of former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), who is considering a run for president:

In August 2009, the president traveled to Montana to deliver a speech touting health care reform. His efforts to transform the health care system were then under siege from the tea party movement, which warned of a European-style “government takeover” of health care and spread myths of federal “death panels” to execute the infirm. So Schweitzer raised a few eyebrows when he introduced Obama by declaring his unabashed love for Canada’s government-run health care program.

“Did you know that, just 300 miles north of here, did you know they offered universal health care 62 years ago?” he said. He praised Tommy Douglas, father of the country’s health program, who, he noted, was named in a TV poll the greatest Canadian in history – nine spots ahead of Wayne Gretzky.

Minutes later, the president used his own speech to declare, “I’m not in favor of a Canadian system, I’m not in favor of a British system, I’m not in favor of a French system. What we’ve said is, let’s find a uniquely American system.”...

After the speeches were over, Obama sat Schweitzer down for a private talk. According to Schweitzer, the president said his voice wasn’t helping the health care debate and asked him to step away. The broad strokes of this story make clear that Obama, who as a U.S. Senate candidate billed himself as  "a proponent of a single-payer universal health care," was using the power of the presidency not only to undermine proposals for a public insurance option, but to help the insurance industry stop high-profile Democrats from even talking about single-payer health care.

While an embarrassed White House is now disputing some of the finer points of Schweitzer's account, the Montana governor's story effectively confirms a little-noticed statement by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. In 2009 she publicly admitted the president was actively trying to stop any discussion of single payer:

Asked if the administration's program will be drafted specifically to prevent it from evolving into a single-payer plan, Sebelius says: 'I think that's very much the case, and again, if you want anybody to convince people of that, talk to the single-payer proponents who are furious that the single-payer idea is not part of the discussion.'
For his part, Schweitzer says, "I’m not going to apologize a damn bit" for criticizing Obamacare as an insurance industry bailout and for advocating a Canadian-style system. To that end, he spent the latter part of his second term as governor orchestrating a series of confrontations with the Obama administration over health care. For example, Schweitzer (whose gubernatorial campaign I worked for in 2004) requested federal waivers to sell prescription drugs at cheaper Medicaid prices and to create a single-payer partnership with nearby Saskatchewan.

But, as MSNBC notes, the president summarily shut down the initiatives, just like we now know he shut down any discussion of single payer health care.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pandodaily]