Are the Dems Wimping Out?

Platform leaves wide open space for the special interests

Big health care news was made over the weekend as builders of the Democratic platform began hewing their planks, including an especially large one for health care. Dems should be thrilled to hear that, after all that has been said about the subject lo these many months, health care is still on the minds of the pols. Political platforms have always been testaments to compromise—one that blends enough values and interests so as not to ruffle many feathers and give the party faithful something to rally around at convention time when rhetoric and good feelings fly freely. In reality, they don’t mean all that much in the sense of actually passing laws.

This year’s health care plank is both comprehensive and unspecific—a pleasing combo for sure. Its vagueness, though, may turn out to be very significant. An AP story tells us that Hillary Clinton’s supporters succeeded in adding language describing health care as “a shared responsibility between employers, workers, insurers, providers and government.” Former Clinton adviser Chris Jennings, who lobbied hard for those words, called the language on shared responsibility “important” and noted that it was “stated quite clearly in the platform.”

Jennings’s inserts sure sound a lot like the system we have now. All those groups already have a big role in health care, and it looks like they will continue to have one. The Dems seem to be saying that workers will still get coverage from their employers; insurers will still sell private policies, and the government—ah, the government—will still have to make Medicare and Medicaid work for the old and the poor. Health-care providers will still treat the sick. What a surprise!

There’s something for every stakeholder here, and that brings us to the next slice of the health care plank: “All Americans should have coverage they can afford.” Well, yes, no argument here. Except, as we at CJR pointed out last Friday, “affordable” coverage may actually offer little or no coverage at all.

The plank goes on to say: “While there are differing approaches within the party about how best to achieve the commitment of universal coverage, we stand united to achieve this fundamental objective through the legislative process.” Michael Yaki, chair of the drafting platform committee, re-enforced this point with the AP: “There’s no real consensus yet on which is the best health care reform to do other than we are committed to universality and we’re committed to getting there. We believe that as you make health care more affordable, people will be able to buy health care—that’s the basic principle. How we get there is a matter of the legislative process.” A cop-out, or an invitation to the special interests?

The legislative process is indeed where the special interest stakeholders come in—the insurers, the Pharmas, the doctors, the hospitals, the business groups, the employers that have given millions to Obama’s war chest. They certainly expect to be heard in the backroom, and the Democrats’ plank seems to be an open invitation for all to come and have their say. Neither the AP story nor bloggers for the Chicago Tribune and Fox News jumped in to connect the dots and discuss the implications of that platform plank. Journalists need to do that.

There has been surprisingly little written about the financial contributions made by any of the special interests that will inevitably help fashion health care legislation. The Democrats’ platform offers a fine news peg by which to explore the money angle., the website of the Center for Responsive Politics, should be the first stop for reporters trying to interpret what the platform for health care reform means. shows that the entire health sector—the docs, the nurses, their specialty groups, the hospitals, HMOs, drug companies, insurers—has given Obama more than $8 million since the campaign began. (McCain got half as much.)

Finance, insurance, and real estate were at the top with $22 million in contributions. A group called “miscellaneous business,” which includes all kinds of small and large businesses and their trade organizations, was the third largest donor, contributing $14 million. Employers will be a huge lobbying force as health legislation moves through the process. So will the docs and other health professionals. They have given more than $5 million; hospitals and nursing homes have given nearly $1.5 million. Lately these groups have not been as visible as insurers, but they certainly won’t take a pass on the Dems’ invitation to join the party. The public just might want to know what they’re up to.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.