To Your (Corporate) Health


President Bush’s drive to get himself re-elected and electroshock the economy back to life took a new turn last week as Congress, in a heralded display of “bipartisan” politics, embraced a scheme to pay for drugs under Medicare. The idea is for the elderly to pay up to half the cost of drugs in a complicated, stepped program that would cost $400 billion. The government would pay the money to the pharmaceutical industry, which would conduct the program. “It’s a traditional contortionist effort to try to show you’re doing something when the real agenda is to protect corporate drug interests,” said David Himmelstein of Physicians for a National Health Program. “Bush wants to do it though private drug-management firms that take a big cut of anything before giving any benefits. Most seniors still wouldn’t be able to afford drugs, prices would still be high, and they’d be spending a large chunk of federal money to do this.”

There is another problem, as Congressional Quarterly points out, that could end up hurting, not helping, the elderly. Should the government program appear to be too generous, corporations may drop altogether the drug coverage in their medical plans. Corporations currently are cutting back on these costly programs. A December 2002 study from Kaiser Family Associates and Hewitt Associates shows that 13 percent of companies dropped drug coverage over the last couple of years, and 44 percent required employees to increase their share of the cost. The AFL-CIO argues that workers who took wage concessions in labor negotiations so as to get drug coverage once they retired will get screwed.

So in some respects, politicians who are coming to the rescue of the needy elderly actually are just rewarding the pharmaceutical giants, which always have been generous campaign givers, with yet another giant economic boondoggle.

Add that to the $80 billion a year being spent to “democratize” Iraq and the gift of $555 billion over 10 years to the top 1 percent of taxpayers, through the dividend tax refund. (Just that tax break itself exceeds the total of proposed increases for education, health research, defense, and prescription drugs, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a mainstream think tank.)

Meanwhile, it turns out that getting our hands on Iraqi oil isn’t going to provide us with needed future energy supplies. Now we’ve got to have more natural gas. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve system, told a congressional committee last week that he was worried that soaring natural gas prices would contribute to the “erosion” of the economy. Natural gas is a more or less clean fuel in great demand by industry to help it meet air pollution standards. Greenspan urges the U.S. to import more gas as a “safety valve” in case domestic production can’t do the job. That means building more terminals for liquefied-natural-gas tankers hauling gas in its frozen form from the Caspian Sea area and from Australia, Indonesia, and the Russian Far East. Tankers are an extremely dangerous means of transporting gas. If a terrorist successfully attacked one of them, the explosion would be enormous, on the order of a nuclear bomb, some experts have said. At any rate, importing gas by this means will be expensive, and building ports along the East and West coasts will be highly controversial. With that in mind, the best way of importing gas is to carry it by pipeline from Alaska and the Canadian Arctic down through the Mackenzie delta and into the Midwest. A Mackenzie delta pipeline plan has been on and off for literally a quarter of a century.

Greenspan also said, “I do think an overall policy of energy cannot dismiss the issue of nuclear power.” This vague statement was immediately taken by nuclear proponents on Capitol Hill as Greenspan’s endorsement for more nuke plants. Nuclear power was basically discarded in this country in the late 1970s after the Three Mile Island accident. It always has been more expensive than coal and viewed as both dangerous and controversial, if only because of the nightmarish quandary over what to do about radioactive wastes.

Bottom line: Why did we go to war in Iraq?

Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Joanna Khenkine

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