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Rhetoric

From the Publisher of Chicago Life

By PAM BERNS

In the spring of 2003 Chicago Life interviewed the esteemed journalist, Helen Thomas. "This business of reforming, they don't mean it," she said to our writer, Jane Ammeson. "Every time they privatize something &ndash [it's] goodbye. They want to run the government, but they don't believe in government. We have to have eternal vigilance. That's the price of liberty."

Given the last few years of governance in this country, Thomas' words could not be more on target. Today's scare tactics are aimed at social programs, attempting to justify so-called "reforms," similar to those given to justify an unnecessary war in Iraq (Condoleezza Rice referred to the impending threat from Iraq as a "mushroom cloud").

The alarming "threats" we now hear of are part of a carefully planned agenda to reward donors: scare Americans and then offer solutions disguised as reforms to dismantle social and environmental programs, disable regulations and facilitate "regime change" on the other side of the globe.

The most recent threat is that doctors are fleeing their practices because greedy malpractice lawyers are causing frivolous lawsuits, thus causing malpractice insurance rates to sky-rocket. The scare tactics involving malpractice lawsuit caps also just happen to be favorable to the insurance industry &ndash again &ndash that gave so generously to Republican campaigns. This is definitely a partisan issue. It shouldn't be. It requires compromise and action on the behalf of doctors, insurance companies, health providers and lawyers.

Malpractice insurance rates do not proportionately fall just because caps on pain and suffering are legislated. In fact, as the Weiss Safety study of malpractice insurance found, insurers still continue to increase doctors' premiums at a "rapid pace," regardless of caps. The study concludes that imposition of caps won't make a significant dent in the problem. In fact it may actually make things worse. What caps do, however, is make settlements lower for insurance companies and limit patients' ability to sue. A skeptic might assume that these caps &ndash which make lawsuits next-to-impossible &ndash could result in damaging some of the Democratic Party's top donors &ndash lawyers. Unfortunately, the losers in initiating caps on pain and suffering are the most vulnerable patients &ndash the poor, sick and elderly &ndash those who do not have economic damages. Having a cap of $250,000 on a lifetime of pain and suffering will only make it impossible for the poor to find an attorney to represent the injured patient because most attorneys cannot afford to try a case without adequate financial compensation. This is unfair to our country's weakest citizens.

The astronomical premiums that some physicians are forced to pay are partly a result of insurance industry mismanagement: Under-reserving in the ?90s, poor investments and medical inflation. The idea that legislating caps will lower medical malpractice rates is a simple &ndash and simple-minded &ndash solution to high insurance rates. The insurance industry must recategorize specialties and base their rates on actuarial analysis and sound underwriting &ndash not volatile investments. Insurance companies should also inform physicians of major increases in rates in time for physicians to find other options. Physicians now have about a month to research options, which is too little time. According to the Weiss study, the medical community can't allow doctors to practice who've lost their licenses in other states due to their medical mistakes to practice.

The issue of high malpractice insurance rates is extremely complex. And so is the future of Social Security. We live in a country where important issues are summed up in catchy phrases such as "tort reform," "Social Security reform," "Medicare reform" or the "Clear Skies" &ndash disguising the government's real agenda.

I just finished reading Graydon Carter's What We've Lost which describes our country's setbacks to date. Today most of us recognize the Medicare prescription drug bill as what it is &ndash a big gift to the pharmaceutical industry. The Bush double-speaking "Clear Skies" initiative will permit 42 million tons of air pollutants to be released by 2020, causing an estimated 24,000 premature deaths. The recent "reform" to open national forests to private timber industries is a gift to corporations who shown their appreciation with campaign donations.

What We've Lost documents a series of environmental rollbacks in the last four years &ndash many announced between midnight and 4 o'clock on Saturday mornings. By announcing these anti-environmental regulations late Friday nights, or "just before a major holiday or during a holiday weekend," the administration knows that the nightly news programs will be already taped &ndash and by Monday it will be old news and buried in the newspapers.

What is most disturbing is that many of these "reforms" or environmental rollbacks &ndash such as paving roads through national forests for loggers and mountaintop mining &ndash leave permanent scars on our environment. We don't get a second chance.

One of the most egregious of these trumped-up crises is the proposal for Social Security reform. Author Jeff Madrick of Why Economies Grow, wrote a column in The New York Times that outlined the bottom line of partial privatizion of Social Security. Today, Social Security pays a fixed amount to the sick and elderly.

Privatization will take the security out of Social Security. What Madrick explains is that if there is partial privatization of Social Security, given a typical bond rate of 2.7 percent after transaction costs, a typical one-earner family will end up with only 58 percent of the projected benefits under current Social Security law. If the investor earns nothing in stocks and bonds over time, that person may only receive around 38 percent of the current benefit. Tweaking the current system is the way to go. Not privatization. This current Bush "reform" will add to the polarization of our country's well-to-do and poor. As if the tax cuts haven't done enough damage to our federal deficit.

Before Social Security, 48 percent of the elderly lived in poverty. Today 10 percent are poor. This safety net has made it possible for our country's most vulnerable &ndash those who cannot work &ndash to live with the most basic essentials. What this administration is suggesting is to turn the most successful program ever over to private financial industries that are some of Bush's top contributors, creating hundreds of millions of new clients for the financial industry &ndash a windfall for Wall Street. And to destroy this safety net for most of our elderly, our government will have to borrow up to $2 trillion to cover the gap between payments to current retirees and those who retire once workers begin diverting money into private accounts, writes Madrick. This is insanity.

Helen Thomas was right when she said we have to have eternal vigilance. It's just difficult for Americans to be vigilant when environmental rollbacks and roll calls for partisan bills occur at 2 o'clock Saturday mornings. &ndash Pam Berns

Published: February 01, 2005
Issue: Winter 2005