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I spent the morning in the Capitol building at a Senate Finance Committee panel discussion on health care reform and expanding coverage. Staff with the committee gave me a seat in the room, but wouldn’t give Consumer Watchdog a seat at the table. Now I know why. Committee Chairman Max Baucus apparently wanted unanimous support for a requirement for individuals to purchase private health insurance. He asked the question at the end of the hearing and got his unanimity. But even though 100% of the panel agrees, a December poll shows that less than 15% of the American public feel the same when asked if they support requiring everyone to show proof of insurance or face tax penalties or fines.

As for the rest of the hearing, an uninformed bystander might have mistaken it for the Karen Ignagni Show. (Ignagni is chief executive of the health insurance industry’s lobbying organization, AHIP.) Three hours doesn’t leave a lot of time for questions from 16 senators for 15 panelists. Nevertheless, Ignagni spoke up eleven times, not including the back and forth of follow-ups. She used all that time to try and sell the image of a born-again insurance industry that's finally come to the realization that government regulation is good for them.

In reality, any time an insurance company comes begging for regulation there’s something more behind the curtain. (No matter what kind of insurance we’re talking about – see my New York Times letter about Allstate’s call for federal regulation of auto insurance last month.) Ignagni and AHIP act like they’re compromising but it's just a smoke screen in order to advance their real agenda: a mandate for Americans to purchase their insurance products, and no public alternative to private health insurance. Whatever else they concede, like agreeing to sell insurance to everyone regardless of health status, works in the industry’s favor if every American is forced to buy their product.

I don’t want to give the impression that no one disagreed on anything; A public option as an alternative to private insurers was on the table and a point of contention for the insurance industry and big business. Nevertheless, the committee dropped the ball on a real debate over the individual mandate. And on other issues: A group of supporters of single payer health care pulled off a well-orchestrated protest at the beginning of the hearing over their lack of representation on the panel. A new person stood up to speak her piece every time one was escorted out of the hearing.

We’ve asked to be included in the next panel, and I’m hoping this time the Finance committee is looking for alternative viewpoints. I’ll keep you posted.