The media have been swamped with reports about the attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day. When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, now dubbed the “underwear bomber,” failed in his alleged attack, close to 300 people were spared what would have been, most likely, a horrible, violent end. Since that airborne incident, the debates about terrorism and how best to protect the American people have been reignited.
Meanwhile, a killer that has stalked the U.S. public, claiming, by recent estimates, 45,000 lives annually—one dead American about every 10 minutes—goes unchecked. That’s 3,750 people dead—more than the 9/11 attacks—every month who could be saved with the stroke of a pen.
This killer is the lack of adequate health care in the United States. Researchers from Harvard Medical School found in late 2009 that 45,000 people die unnecessarily every year due to lack of health insurance. Researchers also uncovered another stunning fact: In 2008, four times as many U.S. Army veterans died because they lacked health insurance than the total number of U.S. soldiers who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the same period. That’s right: 2,266 veterans under the age of 65 died because they were uninsured.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama was fiery when he made his public statement after meeting with his national security team about the airline breach: In seeking to thwart plans to kill Americans “we face a challenge of the utmost urgency,” he said. He talked about reviewing systemic failures and declared we must “save innocent lives, not just most of the time, but all of the time.”
This is all very admirable. Imagine if this same urgency was applied to a broken system that causes 45,000 unnecessary deaths per year. Since stimulus funds will now be directed to supply more scanning equipment at airports, what about spending money to ensure mammograms and prostate exams at community health centers?
And then there’s the investigation of who is responsible for the attempted Christmas Day attack and getting “actionable intelligence” from the alleged bomber to prevent future attacks. All good.
We actually have “actionable intelligence” on why people die due to lack of health care, and how insurance companies actively deny people coverage to increase their profits, but what has been done about it?
The day before the underwear bomb incident, Christmas Eve, the U.S. Senate passed The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act by a vote of 60 to 39. Obama described the bill as “the most important piece of social legislation since the Social Security Act passed in the 1930s.” Yet in order to get to that magic number of 60 Senate votes, the already weak Senate bill had to be brought to its knees by the likes of Sen. Joe Lieberman, from the health insurance state of Connecticut, and conservative Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska. The Senate and House versions of health insurance reform now have to be reconciled in conference committee.
The conference committee process is one that is little understood in the U.S. In it major changes to legislation are often imposed, with little or no notice. That’s why C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb sent a letter to congressional leaders Dec. 30 requesting access to televise the process. He wrote, “[W]e respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American.” Rather than simply grant access, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asserted that “there has never been a more open process.”
Yet Pelosi and the Democrats are now saying that the bills won’t even go through a formal conference committee, but rather through informal, closed-door sessions with key committee chairs. While this would circumvent Republican opportunities to filibuster, it would also grant a very few individuals enormous power to cut deals in much the same way that Sens. Nelson and Lieberman did. Since the health insurance, medical equipment and pharmaceutical industries spent close to $1.4 million per day to influence the health care debate, we have to ask: Who will have access to those few legislators behind those closed doors?
Wendell Potter, the former CIGNA insurance spokesperson turned whistle-blower, says he knows “where the bodies are buried.” Let’s be consistent. If we care about saving American lives, let’s take action now.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 800 stations in North America. She is the author of “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.