When politicians or public officials leave office, it’s customary to hit the paid speakers circuit, where they join journalists and pundits in putting on special, personalized Sunday show–style discussions for corporations and their lobbying groups.
The lucky speakers and panelists get paid tens and sometimes even hundreds of thousands of dollars to briefly entertain powerful corporate executives, whose jobs involve influencing policy so that it serves their own financial interests, at the expense of everyone else.
Bill and Hillary Clinton’s six-figure speaking gigs with big banks and Wall Street firms were major 2016 campaign fodder, but lots of Washington insiders end up doing this — from Barack Obama and George W. Bush, to faux-populist conservative Tucker Carlson, and even famed Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward. For the most part, no one cares about all this “buckraking.”
It’s easy to dismiss these speeches as trivial, given the content — speakers typically provide canned commentary, rehash their accomplishments, and recount details from their books on sale. If you listen closely, though, you can occasionally hear something incredibly revealing.
By that measure, Anthony Fauci’s recent speech to Washington’s top health insurance lobbying group takes the cake. What was and wasn’t said spoke volumes about why buckraking is such an inherently gross practice — laying bare the problems with the country’s health care system and those charged with regulating it.
Regarded as the country’s top infectious disease expert, Fauci has advised seven presidents and helped oversee the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic on behalf of presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden before he stepped down at the end of 2022.
On June 13, Fauci spoke at a conference in Portland, Oregon, held by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) as part of a discussion entitled: “Building Back Public Trust in Health Care.”
The premise was seriously flawed. After all, AHIP is a well-known lobbying group for incredibly powerful and profitable health insurers, businesses whose very existence is a fundamental reason why American health care services are so expensive and outcomes are so bad. How can Americans have any trust in health care at all when they know that if they need pills or a surgical procedure, or experience a medical emergency, their insurer can and likely will stick them with a big bill?
As Neema Stephens, national medical director for health equity at the insurance giant Cigna, admitted during another panel at the conference, “People don’t trust the insurance companies.”
Fauci, who reportedly charges between $50,000 and $100,000 for speeches, started his talk by thanking the audience of insurance lobbyists and health care marketing companies for being “devoted to making sure that we get good health care in an equitable way.”
In truth, the US health care system is the only one in the world built primarily around private health insurance, and that’s precisely why it is not equitable. Health insurers create financial barriers to care and administrative hurdles to limit utilization.
Compared to other high-income countries, the United States ranks “last overall in providing equitably accessible, affordable, high-quality health care,” according to research by the Commonwealth Fund. That’s despite the fact that the United States spends far more on health care than other wealthy countries.
This spending and care mismatch is deliberate: the system is designed so that corporate CEOs get obscenely rich, while Americans get saddled with medical debt — a fact of life in the United States that basically does not exist in other countries.
Talking about disinformation campaigns against public health officials in the COVID-era, Fauci said that “organizations like the AHIP and others can really play a major role in countering it — not by putting down the people who are spreading misinformation, but by countering it with correct information.”
AHIP, of course, secretly funded a successful $100 million advocacy campaign against a public health insurance option in 2010, which claimed that a government-run health insurance plan would mean “expanded government control over your health.” As it stands, our insurance-based health care system gives profit-seeking businesses a financial incentive to wrongly deny care and services, and an extreme level of control over whether people get the help they need.
AHIP has also worked closely with pharmaceutical and hospital lobbyists on a deceptive, yearslong PR and lobbying campaign opposing any and all health care reform proposals floated by Democrats — including Medicare for All favored by progressives, a separate idea to allow people to buy into Medicare, and the public option compromise that Biden promised and abandoned.
Their campaign, called the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, has routinely pushed lies about how Americans are actually really happy with their insurance coverage. One 2020 ad warned of mass hospital closures, claiming: “Medicare for All, Medicare buy-in, and the public option — you’d pay more to wait longer for worse care.”
Maybe folks should cut Fauci some slack for talking blithely about trust and equity to people whose very business is antithetical to these concepts in health care. And maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that when Fauci was asked what the AHIP audience should do to help prepare for the next public health crisis, his tone-deaf response to these corporate lobbyists was to “do what you do, and continue to do it.”
That’s because apparently Fauci took this gig without knowing much, if anything, about it.
“I wasn’t totally familiar with AHIP,” he told the group.
In other words, Fauci accepted a speaking assignment from a group he knew very little about, and he didn’t bother to ask any questions. What makes this apparently unwitting cash grab especially egregious is that as one of the country’s longtime top health care officials, Fauci should be well acquainted with the role that AHIP and its member companies play in preserving the United States’ unique health care hell.
Fauci, however, apparently wasn’t aware of any of this.
“So I went to the Internet,” he said, before reading aloud from the about page on AHIP’s website: “It says here AHIP is the national association whose members provide health care coverage and services, solutions, to hundreds of millions of Americans — committed to market-based solutions, public-private partnerships, and making health care better, to create space where coverage is affordable and accessible to everyone.”
“Do what’s in your — ” Fauci started to say, as he was interrupted by a ballroom full of health insurance leaders erupting with laughter.
With that, the panel was over. There was nothing else left to say.