Invoking Ken Lay

Health care reform opponents use odd ally to deflect criticism

Bill Hammond:
Bill Hammond: "If Ken Lay were alive today, he'd say, 'My god, what have they done?' Or maybe he's looking down from heaven saying, 'If I were alive today, they would have sent me to prison for what I did?'" (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Press conferences in the Speaker's conference room are normally bloodless affairs. However that couldn't be said for Tuesday's anti-health care reform event, when the capitol press corp quizzed three business groups hard on their opposition to the recently passed bill.

Calling HCR "the corrupt product of a corrupt process", Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond told the assembled press that Obamacare (as he insisted on calling it) will cause financial rack and ruin for small businesses. "Employers are going to be put in a position where they will simply give up and not give this benefit to their employees," he said. Employers with more than 50 employees will have to meet new standards ("established in Washington, D.C.," he rumbled) or face a $2,000 per employee tax.

Laura Stromberg of the National Federation of Independent Businesses was initially just more measured than Hammond, suggesting that the confusion over the exact terms of the law was perturbing her members (although, as she later confirmed, most of her association's members have fewer than ten employees and so will not be directly affected by the mandates, and they had done no actual polling yet). But she soon had to play a sort of peace-keeping role when Pete Havel, regional director of the US Chamber of Commerce, decided to make a remarkable statement:

The US Chamber of Commerce has supported reform in the area of pre-existing conditions but again, like Bill, we haven't wanted to create a market where you can buy fire insurance ten minutes after the fire starts.
Uh, excuse us?

The issue, he suggested, is people waiting to get sick before they buy insurance. He went on, "What I'm getting at is, in a market place, creating a situation where you may be creating disincentives to purchase insurance and can get care either way."

Hammond chimed in on the same meme, and added, "What you're doing is allowing someone to pay a small amount of money and in return receive tens of thousands of dollars in benefits that will being paid for by other policy holders."

So, having shown a poor grasp of both what pre-existing conditions really mean and the basic shared risk principles behind insurance, the event became a Q&A. Unfortunately for them, the questioning took a tougher turn, with the three spokespeople being pushed hard on questions of the mitigating effect of tax credits and basic issues of whether they had really consulted their membership.

Havel retreated for much of the event, while Stromberg tried to take a middle tack of saying that, yes, there were elements and intentions of the bill that they agreed with, but there were serious issues her association wanted addressed. So what did Hammond want? Aside from repeal, more and broader tort reform, he effectively demanded an end to state and federal mandates, allowing the sale of health insurance across state lines without having to hit federal standards, and allowing associations to sell insurance to their members.

Hold up: Hasn't Texas, the state with the weakest legal restraints on businesses and the smallest, ended up with amongst the nation's highest insurance premiums, lowest rates of coverage and worst stats for under-insurance? As Layelin Copelin from the Statesman (welcome back to the press corps, sir) so adroitly put it, "For ten years, we've been in a free market state, by and large, and y'all praise it as being low-regulatory and so on so forth. So why hasn't the free market solved the problems?"

Hammond's response to the general issue was that Texas is still over-regulated and that every decision should be be between "the employer, the employee and the health insurance company."

So what about selling across state lines? How can anyone stop companies scurrying across the map to find the weakest regulatory structure, as has already happened with credit cards? "You don't," said Hammond. "It would be a matter of a willing buyer and a willing seller."

But Hammond left his most remarkable statement for near the end.

If Ken Lay were alive today, he'd say, 'My god, what have they done?' Or maybe he's looking down from heaven saying, 'If I were alive today, they would have sent me to prison for what I did?'

Yes, according to Hammond, expanding health care is dreadful because it will increase the deficit (sorry, Bill, gonna weigh in on hyper-inflated military spending any time soon?) But bringing in the Enron fraudster as the voice of moral reason? Really?

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Health Care Reform, Health Insurance, Ken Lay, Bill Hammond, US Chamber of Commerce, Pete Havel, Texas Association of Business, National Federation of Independent Business

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