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Sick tax passes because senators say one thing, do another

With 14 Republicans, who usually are against bloated government and unnecessary taxes, in the Louisiana Senate, at least one would have to defect for the sick tax HB 887 to pass. In fact, because a couple of Democrats were expected to vote against it, more would be needed. When all was said and done, Sens. Don Cravins and Nick Gautreaux broke against the tax raise, while Sen. Rob Marrioneaux found reason to absent himself (which is as good as a nay). For it to pass, therefore, five Republicans had to defect – and they did, Sens. Walter Boasso, Sherri Smith Cheek, Ken Hollis, Mike Michot, and Clo Fontenot, allowing the state to reach further into the pockets of health care consumers and insurance payers 26-11.

Cravins’ previous comments and Gautreaux’s failed amendments (to introduce more transparency into the tax and to redirect some monies to rural hospitals) presaged their opposition. Boasso was somewhat of a surprise to support it (although his testimony during amendment consideration made his position clear), while Fontentot was rumored to be shopping his vote around for pork, Hollis’ past voting record, Michot’s running a medical equipment company, and Cheek’s close relationship with the health care industry almost made their votes predictable.

But if one GOP defector would have to be singled out as the crucial vote, the one whom the interests that favored this bill invested in and got a payoff in the form of this passing, it would be Cheek. She has a history of talking as if she favors more efficient health care spending but her actions show, as in this case, that instead she would rather confiscate more money out of the people’s pockets. Her activities relative to other bills this session testify to this, and even on this tax she has said one thing and done another:

Sen. Sherry[sic] Cheek, R-Shreveport, said it would be difficult to vote to take $75 million out of the private economy. “I am extremely concerned about the patient impact and the economic development impact as well. I have 20,000 people employed in health care in northwest Louisiana.”

That was her comment in March about Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s initial attempt to get this done. Less than three months later, suddenly Cheek has no qualms about taking $87 million out of the private economy.

(Defenders of the yea votes will say the bill prohibits the hospitals from passing on the 1.5 percent tax to payers. Amendments trying to strengthen this were offered up on the Senate floor. But good luck in trying to enforce it, and, as Sen. Tom Schedler pointed out, drawing from his experience working in health care management, there’s no way the bill will really stop this. Worse, the supporters of it no doubt realize this but will use the prohibition of cost-shifting as a justification for this grabbing of people’s wallets. And there are a whole lot of other problems with this bill.)

One indicator of why Cheek slums so well with the health care industry is the money they have thrown at her campaign. Combing through her 2003 records, for that campaign she raised over $60,000, almost a third of her total contributions, from health care interests and/or professionals. This doesn’t mean they “bought” her, but rather shows her close affinity to their desires – like any rational organism, they try to put into office those who think like they do.

(This figure is probably low because I counted only clearly identifiable medical organizations, people, and PACs. Probably there are some others who are in the field but whose labels on her reports did not make that obvious. Interestingly, several Democrat legislators, including Senate Pres. Don Hines -- and a committee on his behalf -- and nursing home owner Sen. Joe McPherson contributed to her.)

Larger hospitals and those who do business with them are going to be the big beneficiaries of this wealth transfer from one of the most vulnerable populations, the health-impaired who rely on insurance and their own resources, in Louisiana. While they may have a new friend in Boasso, it was their old friend Cheek who stepped up for them – and against us – when it counted.

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