Get Health Insurance Off Our Backs

After academic ping-pong, a bow tie unravels.

By Art Cullen

It may be easier to get a small submachine gun through the gates of Congress than a lit cigarette. After three hours of jonesing, secured in cavernous room 106 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, your witness before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday, Nov. 3, survived the ordeal but not without a fit at the end.

“You gettin’ all this down?” asked Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican wiseacre from Kansas who used to be a newspaperman, sitting, ironically, at my left.

One economist shot from the left, one from the right, zingers flying past each of their earsets while a diligent and entirely non-comedic Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., rested his head on a fist.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the chief economic policy advisor to former presidential candidate John McCain, held forth from the conservative ground. Dr. Jon Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dug in from the liberal trench. Neither of them said whether they predicted the financial meltdown last fall from their latest computer modeling.

Health care reform would cost small business too much, McCain’s man said. Reform would relieve small business costs, the good doctor from MIT retorted.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, held the gavel as chairman. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., a former shoe store owner, headed the minority as ranking member of the committee that writes health care legislation. Enzi said that he had a bill that could cure small-business ills, but those obstructionist majority Democrats would not go along.

Then there was Franken, Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Arlen Specter (D-Penn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.); and Roberts, McCain and a combative Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

They heard it first from your hometown witness, who described how The Storm Lake Times’ health insurance rates have soared 270% since 1992, with decreased benefits, while the cost of living during that period rose 65%.

“Get health insurance off our backs,” I cried, waking the echoes of Gipper Reagan, who tried to get government off our backs while growing the deficit. That was the last time I was allowed in Washington, for a Reagan regional editors’ press conference. Nobody invited me back until last week. Harkin staffers advised me to stay cool, so neither the senator nor I would reach the logical conclusions to our own proclivities, which can appear radical to some if left unchecked.

Harkin’s proclivity would be to investigate the health insurance industry for price-gouging on small business. He is writing up the subpoenas over this morning’s coffee, perhaps. An actuary served up as roast lamb by the insurers claimed that her study shows that health reform will raise insurance rates. Harkin wanted to see her data. The actuary said it was proprietary, since the insurance company paid for the study and fed the information for it. Harkin told her in so many words that her study was bunk. The insurance suits were not there to defend her or rip her from the spit.

After all the claims and counter-claims and the invective unleashed by Coburn — his concern is interminable waits to see a doctor under health reform, to which Harkin replies that he would rather wait 30 days to see an internist than never, which is the bag the uninsured hold — not to mention the habitual nic fit, your button-down correspondent in a bow tie ultimately came unraveled.

It was nearing Beer:30 and everyone was getting anxious. Harkin and Franken were the only senators left in the room. The Kansas Insurance Commissioner, a Republican and a pal of Roberts, replied to Harkin that a public option for “micro-businesses” like The Times might be all right if there were a level playing field for the private insurance companies. Fairness was her watchword.

Harkin was trying to shut things down and asked if there were any final comments. Of course I raised my hand. Harkin grimaced, noticing my eyes rolling back in my head and the light lather on my lip. But the gracious chairman assented under constituent courtesy — the Senate is nothing if not a courteous place — and told me to let ’er rip.

Here follows, in the interest of objectivity, an account from the New York Times:

“In addition to the two entrepreneurs, (myself and Walt Rowen, a Pennsylvania glass manufacturer whose health insurance rates track with ours), four expert witnesses … testified, and the senators devoted most of their questions to shoring up and tearing down these experts.

“But it was the small-business owners who had the last word, and it was unexpectedly powerful. ‘Everybody here’s talking about being fair to insurance companies — when have they been fair to us?’ Mr. Cullen said. He sounded as if he was at the point of exasperation. ‘Why do we have to be fair to them? It just incenses me when people talk that way. These people are legal thieves with anti-trust protection, and we want to treat them with kid gloves. It drives me nuts! And that’s all I’ve got to say.’”

Harkin proclaimed to the emptying room that it was the best testimonial comment he had heard during the entire process of writing a health reform bill.

I left and lit up safe in the darkness on a capitol park bench, hoping to tell my story to a homeless woman living amid pigeons. She probably would not listen. She had her own story to tell to herself.

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times, in which this appeared. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2009

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2009 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652