Were Gonna Puke

During President Bill Clinton's first term, an insurance-industry television ad commonly known as the "Harry and Louise" spot (a hand-wringing husband and wife huddle in their kitchen to fret about rising medical costs) helped derail health-insurance reform. Six years later—with more Americans than ever pushing for reform, the industry is eager for another public-relations miracle. The eye-rolling upshot of the current ad campaign by insurance lobbyists: "Today's managed health care—there's a lot to feel good about."

Perhaps the only people feeling good about health care today are the politicians who, in the 1997-98 reporting cycle, collected more than $141 million from industry lobbyists bent on blocking reform. But one simple question, posed most succinctly by the American Medical Association, has proved unnerving to insurance company executives: "Criminals all have rights. Why don't patients?"

On Oct. 7, the U.S. House of Representa-tives bowed to mounting public hostility and passed a "patients' bill of rights." The bill—which attempts to hold insurance companies accountable for thwarting patient access to necessary medical treatment —now goes to a conference committee to work out differences with an industry-backed Senate version passed in July. Clinton has said he will not sign legislation that is watered down.

In Orange County, the daily press covered the ground-breaking legislation blandly—like news of a tedious dairy-price-support bill. Neither the Times Orange County nor The Orange County Register bothered with even a cursory write-up of the county's congressional delegation—which, except for Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), energetically tried to kill reform. In vote after vote earlier this month, Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), Chris Cox (R-Newport Beach), Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar) and Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) delighted the insurance industry. They tried to block efforts to make it easier for injured Americans to use emergency-room services. They tried to stall an effort to allow patients to see medical specialists. They worked to maintain a system, in place since 1974, that grants insurance companies immunity from patient lawsuits.

While arguing that government intervention on behalf of patients is bad, Republicans tried to argue that a portion of the Social Security surplus should have gone to subsidize massive tax breaks for the insurance industry.

Few if any in the OC delegation have been friendlier to the insurance lobby than Cox, a corporate securities attorney for a convicted Orange County swindler before he went to Congress a decade ago. In 1996, the Newport Beach congressman earned the nickname "Cruel Chris Cox" for the heartless way he and his staff treated the parents of 6-year-old Steven Olsen, who was brain-damaged and left blind after medical malpractice. The disabled boy can receive only about $4,000 per year in damages because of a Cox-backed law that limits the amount companies have to pay for unethical and illegal acts. Cox, a millionaire who fiercely insists he is compassionate despite heading the archconservative House Republican Policy Committee, refused to meet with Olsen's parents and sent word through a staffer that he once suffered an injury but "he lives with it. He doesn't complain."

Oddly, when it comes to measures that would improve patient care at the expense of current massive insurance company profits, Cox can do nothing but complain. Allowing wronged patients an opportunity to present their cases to judges and juries would be, he told his colleagues, "fool's gold," "a mess" and "a disaster," sure to guarantee rationing and shortages and long waiting lines. This from a man who adamantly predicted in 1993 that Clinton's economic policies would bring catastrophe unseen since the Great Depression.

Indeed, said Cox, if America's health-care system fails to deliver, blame government. "The tragic cause of Americans' lack of health-care choice is federal regulation . . . [and federal government] bureaucracy," said Cox, pretending that penny-pinching insurance-company executives aren't the ones currently dictating what doctors can and can't do for patients.

Nevertheless, Cox—who has received more than $131,850 in campaign contributions from insurance-related businesses during the past six elections—says he has the answer to what he concedes (for political cover) are "very real concerns that patients and doctors have." His answer? Not to lessen the grip of insurance-industry executives on health care, but to increase the number of insurance companies. The congressman says his idea would allow consumers to "go elsewhere" —to another insurance provider, a company that would also enjoy complete immunity whenever it put profits ahead of care.

"Workers," said Cox—one imagines him breaking into his famous toothy smile—"should have real alternatives."

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