I remember one other time that Washington attempted to make a major change to health insurance. It was in 1988, at the depths of the Iran-Contra affair, when Ronald Regan was at his weakest. He decided to propose an expansion of Medicare coverage for “catastrophic” expenses and prescription drugs, but paid for entirely by the elderly in the form of a surtax on their income tax payments. Dan Rostenkowski was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee at the time.
You can read the gruesome details in this New York Times 1989 story written as the law was being repealed.
The legislation metastasized from a modest expansion of Medicare to prevent the sickest from going bankrupt, to a huge laundry list of things that had to be covered:
Once the program arrived on Capitol Hill, the Democrats seized on it as the vehicle for sweeping health benefits for the elderly and for some disabled and needy people. And at Mr. Reagan’s insistence, the entire bill was sent to the elderly, in the form of an extra monthly Medicare premium and a surtax for people over 65 with incomes above $35,000.
That tax, little noticed at the time, led to a well-organized protest campaign that ultimately buried members of Congress under an avalanche of angry mail. The revolt culminated last week in a House vote to repeal the measure and a Senate vote to slash the benefits and eliminate the surtax. The two houses will iron out their differences in a conference committee.
What had originally been conceived as a $5 a month charge for seniors to pay, grew over the months to up to an annual charge of $1,600 per couple for the wealthiest Americans over 65.
Organized opposition grew, principally from the head of a direct marketing group who opposed the tax:
The flames were fanned by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, whose chairman is Mr. Roosevelt. The committee was founded in 1982 by Butcher-Ford, a mail marketing company with headquarters in Newport Beach, Calif. It was sold last year to National Direct Marketing.
The committee’s budget this year is $48 million, and its membership has grown to five million, in part because of its campaign against the surtax.
You can mail a lot of letters for $48 million dollars, and they were able to get a lot of angry seniors involved in opposition to the new tax.
Along the way, the opposition narrowed their targeting to Dan Rostenkowski, the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Remember Alinksy’s rule #13? :
“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
Now watch what a well organized mob of senior citizens do to Chairman Dan in his home district of Chicago in 1989, from CBS in a 2010 story on Town Hall protests.
I love the lady at 1:10, who says, “He’s supposed to represent the people, not himself!” That’s one angry senior. This happened all across the country in 1989, until Congress finally repealed the law.
How can we mobilize this kind of anger over policy cancellations, skyrocketing rates, lousy insurance policies, and dishonest dissemblers in Congress and the White House?