Pay Much Attention to the Insurers Behind Paul Ryan’s Curtain

Wendell Potter – Former insurance company executive; author Posted: 04/ 7/11 09:10 AM ET

Democrats who think Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues have foolishly wrapped their arms around the third rail of American politics by proposing to hand the Medicare program to private insurers will themselves look foolish if they take for granted that the public will always be on their side.

Rep. Ryan’s budget proposal would radically reshape both the Medicare and Medicaid programs. It would turn Medicaid into a block grant, which would give states more discretion over benefits and eligibility. And it would radically redesign Medicare, changing it from what is essentially a government-run, single-payer health plan to one in which people would choose coverage from competing private insurance firms, many of them for-profit.

Poll numbers would seem to give the Democrats the edge in what will undoubtedly be a ferocious debate over the coming months and during the 2012 campaigns. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted February 27-28 showed that 76 percent of Americans considered cuts to Medicare unacceptable. The public is almost as resistant to cutting Medicaid, at least for now: 67 percent of Americans said they found cutting that program unacceptable as well.

According to a story in Politico this week, Democrats “with close ties to the White House” think Ryan has handed them a gift that will keep on giving. They believe the Ryan blueprint will enable them to portray Republicans as both irresponsible and heartless, hellbent on unraveling the social safety net that has protected millions of Americans for decades. That message will be the centerpiece of the Democrats’ advertising and fundraising efforts, unnamed party strategists told Politico.

Perhaps. But know this: Ryan et al would never propose such a fundamental reshaping of those programs unless they were confident that corporate America stands ready to help them sell their ideas to the public. Like big business CEOs, Congressional Republicans wouldn’t think of rolling out Ryan’s budget plan without a carefully crafted political and communications strategy and the assurance that adequate funding would be available to carry it out.

Republicans know they can rely on health insurance companies — which would attract trillions of taxpayer dollars if Ryan’s dream comes true — to help bankroll a massive campaign to sell the privatization of Medicare to the public.

Four years ago, in a secret insurance industry