By Sam Husseini, an independent journalist based in Washington, D.C. and the founder of VotePact.org. Follow him on Twitter: @samhusseini
The new Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer began his remarks at the recent “Hands Off Medicare” event by noting that he and Bernie Sanders — another speaker at the event — both went to James Madison High School in Brooklyn. Said Schumer: “Bernie was on the track team and they won the city championship. I was on the basketball team. We weren’t that good our motto was ‘we may be small — but we’re slow.'”
The quip turned out to be rather apt.
At the event, Schumer went on about about how privatization of Medicare would mean that doctors could charge what they wanted. I call him on this — he was totally omitting the role of the insurance companies — and he responded by basically pretending that he was saying that all along.
In contrast, Sanders in his opening statement railed: “The leadership of the Republican Party in the House, in the Senate and Mr. Trump have got to start listening to the American people not the drug companies not the insurance companies — not the billionaire class.” Similarly, Sandra Falwell of National Nurses United argued the U.S. needed to stop wasting “tax dollars by subsidize profit making health insurance corporations.”
In contrast, that wasn’t what Schumer was saying in his opening remarks at all. Like other speakers, he criticized Rep. Tom Price, Trump’s HHS nominee, who, like House Speaker Paul Ryan is a longtime nemesis of Medicare, but then he said the following: “Doctor Price seems to say we ought to let doctors run the whole show because he’s a doctor. There are some good doctors and there are some not such good doctors. We’ve all seen both. And too many doctors and other health care providers, without some oversight, will charge every senior as much as they can. That’s what privatization means: Let your doctor charge you whatever he or she wants. We don’t want that to happen.” [at 11:30 in the video.]
So, when question time rolled around [at 26:30], I asked: “You claimed just now that privatization of Medicare would mean your doctor gets to charge you whatever they want. That’s not my understanding, privatization of Medicare would mean that they would cut a deal with the insurance companies.” I also noted that his comments almost seem to minimize the role that the insurance companies, which he of course, along with other sectors of finance, takes a lot of money from — including Trump’s nominee for Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs partner. (Indeed, four of Schumer’s top funders through his political career are in insurance and finance: Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Credit Suisse Group.)
So I asked: “Can you defend that remark?”
Schumer responded: “Yes absolutely. I can absolutely defend it. First of all of course it lets the insurance companies do what they want. —
Schumer: But it also lets individual doctors do what they want and they’re going to tell the insurance companies together will get together and decide the price.
Sam: Right —
Schumer: Right now Medicare —
Husseini: So why did you —
Schumer: — No no no. I’m going to answer your question now please sir. Medicare right now sets limits on prices because it’s government run. Privatization means the private sector, both the insurance companies and the doctors, set the price without regard with what the patients can afford. OK. Yes.
Schumer tried to forestall a follow up with: “Yes, go ahead, next question!”
I noted, though barely audible on the video: “I trust you’ll include the role of insurance companies from now on.”
Basically, what Schumer wants to have happen is people to blame their doctors for all the ills — pretending that the insurance companies are not a huge part of the problem and threat. Only after confronted did Schumer acknowledge the role of insurance companies in threatening to privatize Medicare. His closeness to finance means that he can’t speak honestly about problems and threats even when he’s taking a reasonable stance of “Hands off Medicare.”
Still, it was somewhat satisfying to basically shame Schumer into talking about the role of the insurance companies. It illustrates that asking pointed, timely questions can change to course of a politician’s remarks on an issue.
But this highlights a real problem in the current setup of the Democratic Party. Sanders — whatever shortcomings he might have — is in the position of largely of bringing people in with his populist rhetoric as “outreach chair” for the Democrats in the Senate. But ultimate policy is largely determined by Schumer as minority leader, who is very closely tied to big finance and will act as a sophisticated apologist for it on the major issues at any opportunity.
Video of event: