Watch out for Citizens Health Care Working Group

As grassroots activists across the country pressure Congress and state capitols for universal, affordable health care, they are in danger of being whacked by a little known congressionally pushed “group.” The dishonestly named Citizens’ Health Care Working Group is a hidden part of the Bush agenda to keep profits in health care.

In February of this year, the comptroller general of the United States, David M. Walker, named 14 members to the Citizens’ Health Care Working Group; by federal law, the secretary of health and human services serves as the 15th member. The Working Group’s mandate is to hold hearings around the country on health care coverage and cost, issue a “Health Report to the American People,” and submit recommendations to Congress and the president within two years. Sounds like a good idea, no?

The GAO press release states that Walker’s appointments came from a list of more than 530 people who applied. He claims to have made a diversified selection, including health professionals, employers and workers. The statute required that the appointments include people with personal experience or expertise in paying for benefits and accessing care.

The Working Group’s focus on cost cutting has activists worried that critical issues are not being considered, issues such as the price of services, the need to streamline administration, the excessive salaries of CEOs of hospitals and HMOs, etc. It seems that unwarranted costs for marketing and advertising won’t be measured and that for-profit hospitals and clinics will not be analyzed to see if recent mergers of hospitals lead toward price fixing at excessively high levels. It is hard to imagine that government regulation will be considered as an alternative to the free market price setting that has totally failed.

The need for objective analysis of broadly conceived options flies in the face of the position and early statements of the person selected to chair the panel — Randall L. Johnson, director of Human Resources Strategic Initiatives for Motorola Corporation. Walker said the goal of the panel was “to make quality health care more accessible and affordable to every man, woman and child in an economically rational and fiscally responsible manner.”

At the panel’s second meeting, in Utah in July, Walker warned that skyrocketing health costs could plunge the U.S. into a fiscal hole so dire that it would rival any terrorist threat, the Salt Lake City Tribune reported. Walker added, “Many policymakers, industry experts and medical practitioners contend that the health care system — in both the public and private sectors — is in crisis. Long-term spending for health care is driven by both the aging of our population and the rapid growth of health care costs. ... In the private sector, employers and other private purchasers of health care services find that the soaring cost of health insurance premiums poses a threat to their competitive position in an increasingly global marketplace.”

At first blush, Walker seems to be saying all the right things, but look at his assumptions. His emphasis on “economically rational and fiscally responsible manner” is a dead giveaway. The reason to worry about health care costs seems to be not the health of the people of the nation, but the profitability of private corporations. A major cause of long-term spending cited is aging of the population, rather than the incredible profits made in providing care.

A look at the panelists deciding the fate of the uninsured and underinsured is quite telling. In addition to minimal representation of trade union and other people’s advocates, panelists include two health economists, various business leaders and multiple hospital/health care delivery system administrators.

Among policymakers there is a distinct lack of balance between the health care industry and those of us at its mercy. Activists with Universal Health Care Action Network (UHCAN), HR 676 Single-Payer supporters, National Health Service promoters, and others — beware this group. Remember, if the Bush administration likes it, and it sounds too good to be true, it’s trouble!