The populist anger and frustration fueling the Occupy Wall Street movement has thus far focused most of its animus on just one industry: financial services.
But it’s not farfetched to think that as the “Occupy” movement gathers steam, it — or perhaps another future movement like it — could set its sights on the healthcare industry, and there are signs that it’s already begun. Health insurance companies, in particular, would seem an inviting target to Americans frustrating by rising health costs that far outpace inflation, but drug companies, and perhaps to a lesser extent hospitals, could become ensnared in general public frustration about skyrocketing health costs in the U.S.
Understanding why healthcare corporations and hospitals are potential targets of populist rage isn’t difficult. Simply look at two numbers that reflect the affordability (or lack thereof) of healthcare to most Americans: Since 2001, average premiums for family health insurance coverage have increased by 113 percent. Yet U.S. median household income increased only 17 percent from 2001 to 2010 (the last year for which data was available), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Something’s got to give because those two trends are simply unsustainable.
It’s easy for the public to focus solely on insurance companies as being the primary driver behind rapidly rising health costs, but a little research shows that hospitals and drugmakers, and no doubt plenty of others, have also contributed. Still, any public protests against the health industry are likely to focus on insurers, whether justified or not.
Already, a notable former health insurance executive is calling for protesters to target the Washington, D.C., office of health insurance trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans. The ex-executive, Wendell Potter, helpfully included the office’s address in an article on HuffPost.
An AHIP spokesman didn’t respond to an inquiry about whether any protesters have showed up outside the group’s offices.
And health reform advocacy group Health Care For America Now has taken things a step further, calling for protests outside the headquarters of big health insurers Aetna, Cigna, WellPoint, Humana and UnitedHealth.
“Health insurance companies’ relentless pursuit of profit and callous disregard for people offers another window into how big corporations have abused people and twisted the economy to serve their own interests,” the advocacy group said on its blog.
In addition, Health Care For America Now analyzed more than 500 posts on the “We are the 99 percent” Tumblr, and found that nearly half mention health concerns, ranging from cost of medication to foregoing treatment to treatment denials. So it’s clear that healthcare is already a top-of-mind issue for many Americans drawn to the Occupy movement.
Of course, all this is happening amidst the backdrop of ongoing reverberations from last year’s controversial “ObamaCare” health reform law, with most of the law’s provisions set to take effect in 2014. Plus, the Supreme Court could decide as soon as next year on the constitutionality of one of the law’s key components, the individual mandate that requires people to buy health insurance.
Ironically, if the individual mandate is struck down as many health reform opponents hope, it could set off a chain of events that holds potential to fuel an “Occupy Healthcare” type of movement and ultimately give progressive activists exactly the sort of health system in the U.S. they’ve always wanted.
Here’s why: Insurance companies demanded the individual mandate in return for extending insurance coverage to millions more Americans, and no longer denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. Take away the individual mandate, and insurers have little choice but to jack up their prices to offset the shortfall caused by some people dropping coverage, and others waiting until they get sick to purchase coverage. If health costs continue their seemingly inexorable rise, then cue up a nasty (and some might say, long overdue) backlash from the American public that would set the U.S. on the road to undoing its private health system.
It’s not difficult to imagine a time when many Americans, after years upon years of unsustainably rising health costs, simply throw up their hands and say, “To hell with this health system that so few of us can afford. We demand a single-payer, government-run, Medicare-for-all type of health system like most of the world’s other industrialized countries that, oh by the way, enjoy higher-quality and lower-cost healthcare than we do.”
And that likely would be the best healthcare-related outcome the Occupy protesters could hope for.
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