Healthcare industry leaders are now claiming President Obama substantially overstated their pledge this week to reduce costs. On Monday, President Obama stood by a group of executives and lobbyists from hospitals, insurance companies and drug manufacturers at the White House and said they’d agreed to cut healthcare costs by 1.5 percent per year, or $2 trillion over the next decade. But on Thursday, the companies said they never agreed to specific yearly cuts, but only vague voluntary goals. According to the New York Times, the director of the White House Office of Health Reform, Nancy-Ann DeParle, initially said Obama "misspoke" in announcing the pledge. But one hour later, she reversed herself and said Obama accurately summarized the industry groups’ commitment. The meeting was held as part of industry efforts to stave off a single-payer universal healthcare system. It’s widely acknowledged a single-payer system would put insurance companies out of business, because they wouldn’t be able to compete with its cheaper costs.
At a town hall-style event in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, Thursday, local resident Linda Allison asked President Obama why the White House and the Democratic-led Congress have ruled out single payer.
Linda Allison: "My question is, so many people go bankrupt using their credit cards to pay for healthcare. Why have they taken single payer off the plate? And why is Senator Baucus on the Finance Committee discussing healthcare, when he has received so much money from the pharmaceutical companies? Isn’t it a conflict of interest?"
President Obama: "If I were starting a system from scratch, then I think that the idea of moving towards a single-payer system could very well make sense. That’s the kind of system that you have in most industrialized countries around the world. The only problem is that we’re not starting from scratch. We have historically a tradition of employer-based healthcare. And although there are a lot of people who are not satisfied with their healthcare, the truth is, is that the vast majority of people currently get healthcare from their employers, and you’ve got this system that’s already in place. We don’t want a huge disruption as we go into healthcare reform, where suddenly we’re trying to completely reinvent one-sixth of the economy."
Obama did not address the second part of Linda Allison’s question about Democratic Senator Max Baucus, who has excluded single-payer advocates from Senate Finance Committee hearings. Allison says she was partly inspired to ask the question after viewing Democracy Now!'s coverage on Wednesday of single-payer advocates who disrupted Baucus's hearing.
In other healthcare news, House Democrats have drafted a proposal that would require all Americans to buy health insurance and provide government subsidies for premiums to families with household incomes of up to $88,000. Employers would be forced to offer health coverage to employees or help fund it through a payroll tax. The proposal also calls for the creation of a new government insurance plan to compete with private companies. The proposed government plan would be run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The House has approved a nearly $97 billion spending bill funding the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure includes $1 billion in military and economic assistance to Pakistan. Lawmakers stripped a provision that would have granted $80 million toward the closure the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The final vote was 368-to-60, with a bloc of fifty-one antiwar Democrats voting in opposition. The Senate Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, has approved a $93 billion version of the bill that includes the Guantanamo funding but bars the transfer of any prisoners to US soil.
President Obama is expected to announce today plans to revive the military tribunal system for a small number of Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Obama shut down the military trials shortly after taking office as part of his repudiation of Bush administration policies in the so-called war on terror. According to the Associated Press, Obama will unveil new legal protections for prisoners in the renewed system. These include bans on hearsay evidence and evidence obtained through torture, as well as giving prisoners more leeway in selecting their military counsel. As a Senator, Obama supported an earlier proposal for establishing the military commissions but later opposed the final version approved by Congress. Human rights groups are criticizing Obama’s reversal. Jonathan Hafetz of the American Civil Liberties Union said, "There’s no detainee at Guantanamo who cannot be tried and shouldn’t be tried in the regular federal courts system… This is perpetuating the Bush administration’s misguided detention policy."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is accusing the CIA of deliberately misleading Congress about the torture of foreign prisoners. Pelosi made the charge Thursday in acknowledging she first learned of the waterboarding of CIA prisoners in 2003. Republicans have pointed to Pelosi’s involvement in torture briefings to deflect scrutiny of Bush administration officials. This week, the CIA released documents showing Pelosi was briefed on CIA waterboarding in September 2002. But Pelosi insisted she was told waterboarding wasn’t being used then and said secrecy rules forced her to remain silent when she learned more details several months later.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "The CIA briefed me only once on enhanced interrogation techniques in September 2002 in my capacity as ranking member of the Intelligence Committee. I was informed then that the Department of Justice opinions had concluded that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques were legal. The only mention of waterboarding at that briefing was that it was not being employed."
Pelosi has called on the CIA to release detailed records of her 2002 briefing. The CIA, meanwhile, has denied a request from former Vice President Dick Cheney to release full records of prisoner interrogations to prove Bush administration torture tactics yielded valuable intelligence. Critics have dismissed Cheney’s call as political posturing because of the likelihood the CIA would reject his request.
The Treasury Department has confirmed six major insurance companies are poised to receive billions of dollars in new taxpayer aid. The Treasury has given preliminary approval for granting assistance to Hartford Financial Services Group, Prudential Financial, Lincoln National, Allstate, Ameriprise and Principal Financial Group. Hartford says it could receive up to $3.4 billion.
New figures show a record number of homes faced foreclosure last month. According to RealtyTrac, 342,000 homes received foreclosure notices in April, a one percent increase from March. Nearly 64,000 homes were repossessed, bringing the total number to more than 1.3 million since August 2007.
The auto giant Chrysler has announced plans to close nearly 800 dealerships across the country, or one quarter of its retail chain. General Motors is expected to follow suit today with the announcement of 1,000 dealerships it plans to fold. Taken together, the announcements could affect an estimated 89,000 workers.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, Palestinians marked the 61st anniversary of Al-Nakba Thursday, the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Palestinians maintain their national aspirations despite more than six decades of dispossession and occupation.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: "We are clinging to our national beliefs to establish our own independent state with Jerusalem as its capital and the right of return for refugees in the framework of a just and agreed solution based on UN Resolution 194."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, is set to meet with President Obama at the White House on Monday.
In Burma, the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is set to go on trial Monday for an uninvited visit by a US citizen who swam across a lake to reach her home. The Burmese junta says John Yettaw spent two days in Suu Kyi’s home before he was captured as he made his way out. Suu Kyi’s attorneys say Yettaw ignored her pleas to leave and spent a night sleeping on a ground floor. On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the charges.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "We oppose the regime’s efforts to use this incident as a pretext to place further unjustified restrictions on her. And therefore we call on the Burmese authorities to release her immediately and unconditionally, along with her doctor and the more than 2,100 political prisoners."
The trial appears to come as part of an effort by the junta to force Suu Kyi to give up her home. She has spent thirteen of the last nineteen years under house arrest.
Back in the United States, the Houston-based spiritual leader Sheikh Zoubir Bouchikhi has been released on bond after four months in a private immigration jail. Imam Zoubir has lived in the US for the past eleven years. He was jailed in December after US immigration rescinded his green card approval and rejected his application for permanent residency status as a religious minister. Immigration officials arrested him at his home and led him away in handcuffs in front of his wife and four children. I interviewed Imam Zoubir last month after he called in from the private jail.
Sheikh Zoubir Bouchikhi: "I strongly believe that I am targeted because of my political views, especially I was against the war in Iraq, against bombing innocent civilians in Lebanon in 2006, and for my clear stance that I am pro-democracy and values that this country was founded on. And they don’t want for somebody who is free-minded and outspoken."
Imam Zoubir’s release follows a grassroots campaign to pressure immigration officials to set him free. He is out on a $20,000 bond.
And in New Hampshire, Governor John Lynch has vowed to sign a bill legalizing gay marriage. State lawmakers passed the measure earlier this month. Lynch says he’ll endorse it after legislators make changes to protect churches from lawsuits if they decline to officiate over gay marriages.