Health lobby goes silent

They fought tooth and nail against U.S. President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul last year, but with Republicans aiming to repeal so-called Obamacare, the health industry lobbyists are noticeably quiet.

WASHINGTON — They fought tooth and nail against U.S. President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul last year, but with Republicans aiming to repeal so-called Obamacare, the health industry lobbyists are noticeably quiet.

The U.S. House of Representatives, now controlled by Republicans, voted late Wednesday to repeal the legislation in a largely symbolic gesture. The bill will most certainly die in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and Obama would surely veto any repeal in the unlikely event it ever made it to his desk.

Since Republicans won big in November’s mid-term elections on an anti-Obamacare message, it’s not surprising they’re pushing for a repeal. More surprising, however, has been the fact that their most vocal corporate allies in last year’s bruising battle over health-care reform have barely uttered a peep in support of the repeal. Why?

One health-care industry whistle-blower says it’s hardly an admission of defeat.

“It’s all a smokescreen,” said Wendell Potter, a one-time public relations executive for health insurer Cigna as he toured the Midwest promoting his book, Deadly Spin.

“They’re quiet because they are working behind the scenes with Republican lawmakers in Washington right now to strip the legislation of the very things that make it worthwhile to Americans, and to rid it of everything that impairs their ability to make more money.”

Potter says he quit Cigna in disgust in 2008 when the company refused to cover a liver transplant for a seriously ill 17-year-old girl in California.

He’s since become an advocate of a Canadian-style, single-payer health-care system.

Potter’s opinion of his former industry hasn’t noticeably improved.

“They already won big time,” he said of the health-care lobby’s battle against Obamacare last year. “They got the public option stripped out of the bill and they got the requirement added that we had to buy products from them. But they still aren’t happy. They’re insatiably greedy and they want more, so now they are working behind the scenes to strip out consumer protections as well.”

The lobby group known as America’s Health Insurance Plans fought hard against health-care reform as it snaked its way through Congress last year, but won’t back the so-called Repealing The Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.

Indeed, the heads of insurance companies Aetna and Cigna, both AHIP members, have said publicly they oppose efforts to repeal the law, suggesting it makes more sense to make tweaks to the existing law that stand a chance of success.

“I don’t think it is in our society’s best interest to expend energy on repealing the law,” Cigna CEO David Cordani said in November.

The pharmaceutical industry has sounded a similar tone. The industry’s biggest lobbyist, known as PhRMA, was at the centre of controversy last year when it was disclosed that the White House had cut deals with the group in exchange for a promise not to stand in the way of Obamacare’s passage.

Wes Metheny, senior vice-president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, expressed the need for bipartisanship in a statement released earlier this week.

“We look forward to working with the new Congress and the administration on bipartisan policy solutions that recognize the incredible value biopharmaceutical research companies — and the medicines they develop — provide to patient health, the economy, jobs and U.S. competitiveness,” he said.

Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a staunch opponent of the health-care overhaul, has tempered its criticism.

“We see … the House vote as an opportunity for everyone to take a fresh look at health-care reform and to replace unworkable approaches with more-effective measures that will lower costs, expand access and improve quality,” chamber president Thomas Donohue said recently.

Colin Gordon, a Canadian-born author and health-care expert, said health industry lobbyists have no real motivation to support a repeal.

“When they spent that past year to 18 months fighting for what they wanted removed from the legislation, they pretty much got what they wanted — a very diminished bill,” said Gordon, a professor at the University of Iowa and the author of “Dead on Arrival: The Politics of Health in Twentieth Century America.”

“Secondly, they now have some uniform, national regulations and guidelines, rather than having to deal with regulations that varied from state to state,” said Gordon, who originally hails from Port Hope, Ont., east of Toronto.

“The last thing they want is to see the goalposts moving again, when they’re reorganizing their businesses and not having to deal with the headaches of individual state regulations.”

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