Normalizing Corruption

The Biden White House purports to be worried about corruption — just not the kind now dominating American politics.
Normalizing Corruption
Press Secretary Jen Psaki defending Biden’s COVID-19 testing policy. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“Corruption robs citizens of equal access to vital services, denying the right to quality health care, public safety, and education,” the Biden administration wrote Monday, adding that corruption “has been shown to significantly curtail the ability of states to respond effectively to public health crises.”

These were the key findings of the first-ever “United States Strategy on Countering Corruption,” coordinated by President Joe Biden’s National Security Council. But the strategy paper noticeably avoided mention of a particular form of corruption: corporate capture, where companies and their financial interests completely dominate the policymaking process.

The Biden administration, as it turns out, is a perfect example of this: Every policy solution they propose involves some sort of corporate giveaway. This is the kind of institutionalized and legalized bribery that’s almost never discussed — the corruption that’s responsible for high health care costs and poor health care outcomes in the U.S., and that has made it effectively impossible for lawmakers to rationally respond to the COVID-19 pandemic here and around the globe.

As if to drive the problem home, within hours of releasing their corruption report, the Biden White House was flailing on TV trying to defend an overly complex COVID testing plan that will keep Americans paying inflated retail prices for at-home tests with the hope that their health insurer will agree to reimburse them at some later point. This plan is wildly impractical, but it would be a boon for the same testing manufacturer that just so happened to start paying Biden’s former top aide shortly after Biden was elected president.

The proposed strategy is just the latest example of the Biden administration’s preferred approach for dealing with virtually every health care problem: funnel it through health insurance corporations that bankroll Washington politicians. The situation will continue to drive health care disparities and pad profits in a health care sector that helped finance Biden’s presidential campaign.

Then there’s the issue of containing the pandemic. The fastest way to stop the spread of COVID and prevent new strains from emerging is to vaccinate the world as quickly as possible. But the U.S. and other wealthier countries with powerful pharmaceutical lobbies are hoarding vaccines and continuing to block countries like South Africa and India from manufacturing their own vaccines, choosing to protect private profits instead.

“Should We Just Send One To Every American?”

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki touted the administration’s widely-panned COVID testing plan built around private health insurance — rather than simply providing at-home tests to all Americans.

Under the Biden plan, people will be able to purchase tests from a retailer and then apply for reimbursement from their private insurers. That means that people will have to pay higher retail prices up front, and try to get their private health insurer to agree to pay for the COVID testing kits down the road.

Americans who are uninsured or on Medicare or Medicaid would be able to get free tests at community sites and rural clinics, officials wrote.

When Mara Liasson of NPR asked why the Biden administration wouldn’t just make tests free and “have them available everywhere,” Psaki openly scoffed at the suggestion, asking: “Should we just send one to every American?” Psaki continued: “​​Then what happens if you — if every American has one test. How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?”

While at-home rapid COVID tests are free or very cheap in many countries, and some states like Colorado and New Hampshire have already started programs to send free tests to people who want them, the Biden administration cannot even imagine policy working this way — there are corporate interests to think of and involve, first.

One company that stands to benefit from this convoluted testing regime is Abbott Laboratories, which hired Biden’s former legislative affairs director Sudafi Henry shortly after the 2020 election. Abbott executives and employees donated $174,000 to Biden’s presidential campaign, according to OpenSecrets.

Abbott has dominated the at-home test market in the U.S., in large part because the Biden administration has failed to quickly approve other rapid tests. As ProPublica reported last month, the first two at-home tests approved by the Food and Drug Administration were made by Abbott and Quidel Corporation, two companies where the regulator leading the approval efforts previously worked.

Customers can generally purchase a two-pack of Abbott tests at chain pharmacies for $23.99, or $11.99 per test. Meanwhile, in Europe, a 10-pack of the same Abbott tests sells for $44.40, or about $4.40 apiece.

The Biden administration believes that having Americans with private insurance go buy these tests for nearly three times what Europeans are paying, and then request reimbursement from their insurer, represents the epitome of convenience.

Psaki said Monday that under this scenario, “150 million Americans will be able to get free tests.”

The Private Insurance Presidency

This bureaucratic nightmare of a testing plan may be a sign that the U.S. government is experiencing a bit of difficulty responding to the ongoing public health crisis. It’s also the latest policy solution from the Biden administration centered around private health insurance, an industry that helped finance his campaign as well as his 2021 inaugural committee.

Instead of creating a promised public health insurance option or expanding Medicare, Biden and Democrats have pushed to put more Americans on expensive private health insurance plans with subsidized premiums.

Democrats similarly decided the best way to help poorer residents in GOP-led states that have refused to expand Medicaid coverage is to allow those people to sign up for heavily-subsidized private health insurance plans.

Those efforts are likely to be a windfall for health insurers that have seen huge profits throughout the COVID pandemic. It will also be lucrative for hospitals and doctors, who get paid more by private health insurance plans than by the government.

Definitionally speaking, preserving and propping up a health care system based around private health insurance — instead of establishing a universal, single-payer program — means allowing for different tiers of coverage. It also allows for the continued existence of a significant and durable health care under-class: 28 million Americans were uninsured last year.

If the Biden administration was concerned about everyone having quality health care — or about disparities in care — they would not be working to put more people on private insurance. But that’s exactly what they and Democrats have done.

While providing premium subsidies will surely help people, private health insurers regularly deny claims, create barriers to care, and put people through hell for profit. One potentially relevant example: Some health insurers are currently requiring documentation of a doctor ordering a COVID test before they agree to pay for it. Why make people deal with these vultures?

Some big insurers are already expressing confusion about how the Biden reimbursement policy is supposed to work. “Spokespeople for major health insurers including Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield say their companies are awaiting guidance and will work with the administration on implementation,” Politico recently reported.

The administration isn’t planning to issue the guidance on the testing plan until January 15. That’s more than a month from now, which of course undercuts the entire purpose of their COVID testing policy: “to provide additional protection to Americans and fight the Omicron and Delta variants, while keeping our economy growing.”

At least the Biden administration still has some time to change course and prove that they can respond effectively to a public health crisis — but that might involve countering corporate capture.


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