Transcript: Thom asks Dr. Dennis O'Donohue & John McQueen of Democrats Abroad, has Germany really gone right wing? 01 October 2009

Thom Hartmann: And welcome back to the third hour of our programme live from Stadtsteinach, Deutschland, from Germany. And with me right now, Dennis O’Donohue and John McQueen. Dennis is the Stuttgart Chairman of Democrats Abroad, Germany. John is the Deputy Vice Chair of Chapter Development, and author of the election blog “Wednesday Wire”, which is suspended at the moment, but you might get back to it. And the website is and for this group it would be /group/germany-stuttgart, but is actually a division of the Democratic Party. Democrats Abroad elects a delegate to the DNC, has a say in the crafting of the party platform, the whole thing. So, first of all, welcome gentlemen.

Dennis O’Donohue & John McQueen: Thank you. Glad to be here. Wilkommen in Deutschland.

Thom Hartmann: Ach, danke, danke [thank you]. OK. And I'll just have to hand the microphones to you guys because you just have to eat this mic when you talk into it.

Dennis, let’s start out with healthcare, and in fact I want to let our listeners know that if you have questions for either Dennis or John, give us a call, 866-987-THOM, about how do things work here. I’d like to get into the German healthcare system, as an American. Tell us how long you’ve lived here, and how the healthcare system works, and how it’s changed over the years. I used it back in ’86, and my recollection is that it was pretty much a single-payer system at that time, but how is it now? I know that it’s changed quite a bit, particularly under the one conservative administration that came in the late ‘80’s, and where we’re at now. Here’s Dennis.

Dennis O’Donohue: OK. Thank you, Thom. Well, basically I’ve been in Germany for about fourteen years, and I have worked on what’s called, on the economy for Germany companies, or for Japanese, or whatever, companies, but I’ve been in the German health system ever since. And my general reaction is that it’s quite good. I have not experience of major catastrophes or sicknesses, but just the basic mundane types of things, and it’s definitely a universal plan.

It’s by law now that everybody has to be covered and they estimate that it’s about 99.7% coverage at this stage. It dates back for about one hundred and thirty years, perhaps with Bismarck implementing a basic plan for indigent people and some civil servants and now it’s actually a very interesting hybrid as you mentioned. The conservatives got in and made some modifications. There’s a private aspect, or a private plan that you can opt for, or a public plan. About ten percent of the people choose the private plan, and about ninety percent, including me, choose the actual public plan.

Thom Hartmann: So the public plan is government administered, and it’s basically a single-payer plan. How does it work?

Dennis O’Donohue: Well, it’s a little bit complex. It’s government regulated, highly-regulated, however there are about two hundred non-profit sickness funds, as they’re called. These are health insurance entities. I can’t call them companies, I suppose, if they’re non-profit. And what they do, and it’s quite competitive, you can switch between them and I have done that. They all have to meet minimum requirements, and they evolved over time because of the various types of crafts, be it say engineers, or people who worked in supermarkets, and so on. They tended to grow their own type of insurance, and so the insurance was tailored for them.

Engineers let's say being mostly male, educated, and let's say people working in other professions tend to be maybe more female, and might be focused more on medical care for children and for birth. So, they all had to meet the minimum requirements, but they all had slight differences, and slightly different prices. So people can move back and forth between the plans, and how it works is basically that it’s based upon your salary, the public plan that is. And as an employee, you pay eight percent of your salary, and seven percent is picked up by your employer. However, if you’re like me, self-employed now, I have to do the entire fifteen percent myself. However, as I said, it does have a cap, roughly around fifty-five thousand dollars, at which you don’t pay any more after that.

Thom Hartmann: Does that mean that somebody who’s like Stephen Hemsley, the CEO of United Health Care, who makes 770 million dollars over the last five years, that he would only have to pay fifty-five thousand dollars a year? He wouldn’t have to pay fifteen percent of his income, he might only have to pay, so it's sort of capped like Social Security in the United States?

Dennis O’Donohue: It’s exactly like that. So he would only pay roughly, I think the maximum at the moment is five hundred and forty Euros per month, I think that you can pay. Unlike the US plans however, there’s no such thing as pre-existing conditions, or lifetime maximums. Or there’s no huge deductibles as a matter of fact. There are slight co-payments, and there’s a what’s been implemented lately over the some years is a once a quarter, when you go see a doctor, you have to pay ten Euros. That’s kind of to prevent the hypochondriacs from going every other day to the doctor, having someone to talk to when they’re lonely. So that kind of discouraged them.

If you’re unemployed, your unemployment benefits will fund it. Some of your unemployment benefits, because you pay into you unemployment benefits in Germany as much as your employer does, it’s not only the employer. If you’re chronically unemployed or on welfare, the government will pick up your unemployment. Obviously, you’re in a stressful situation, you need to have unemployment, so you need to have health insurance.

Some of the right wing scare tactics about waiting lists and all the rest of it. It’s certainly not been my experience, that’s for sure. And the public plan includes your child, and your spouse if your spouse is not working, up to a minimum amount of money, I mean, a small little part-time job would be ok. And what it basically covers is doctor visits, you can choose your doctor, and the doctors generally, the GPs and the specialists with their own practice, they work for themselves. They’re not government employees. This is different than the scare tactics that we’ve heard a lot of. If the doctor works at a hospital, then he may be an employee obviously of the hospital.

You can go obviously to hospital, and certainly when my wife had our baby, she was in for a number of days, before and after, and it only cost us about ten Euros a day, so that’s maybe thirteen dollars a day, that’s to pay for the food. So that’s all, because we’re paying in all the time, and we get benefits.

I’m told it pays for mental health care, I haven’t really checked that one out. It also has dental coverage, personally, my experience is, it could be better, in terms of reimbursement in dental, it does pay for certain things, but not so well. There are the co-payments, I think with dental could be better. There is also vision, but again, that could be better. It pays for kind of basic glasses, but if you want something nice, then you’re going to have to work on that and pay for it yourself. It pays for prescription drugs, and much, much cheaper than in the United States. I know that from people comparing stories of the same amount of drugs.

Thom Hartmann: So, we’re talking with Dennis O’Donohue and John McQueen from Democrats Abroad, here in Germany. And Dennis has just been describing the entirety, basically, of the German health care system. A great, yeah, oh, rehab and things? Just quickly wrap it up.

Dennis O’Donohue: Yeah, certainly, rehab. I’m a runner, and I’ve had problems with my Achilles, and with the knee, and I’ve had to go in to doctors and go in to specialists. I’ve had x-rays and MRI’s. The MRI’s cost me roughly fifty dollars. I’m told that in the US that could be thousands, who knows, depending on which day it is. And I’ve had rehab as well, and that probably cost me on the lines of five dollars a visit was my co-pay for personal hands-on rehab and for these kind of specialist machines that build up your muscles that are unbalanced.

Interestingly, there is also sick leave compensation. If you’re out and, if you’re out for a few days, more than two days, you must get a note from your doctor that says that you’re sick. Then the employer will submit that to the insurance company and they pay the salary back to the employer, because you’re out sick.

Thom Hartmann: Wow, that’s incredible. This is like the old Chinese notion of you pay the doctor all the time that you are healthy, and when you became sick, the doctor had to pay you. I’m serious. From hundreds of years ago. I don’t know if it’s an apocryphal story or if it’s a true story, but you know, I’ve certainly heard it a number of times. I lived in China for a month, in a hospital, working in an acupuncture hospital. I was training, I was studying acupuncture, and you know, what a fabulous story.

So, we’re talking with Dennis O’Donohue. John McQueen’s going to be up next. Dennis is the Stuttgart Chairman of Democrats Abroad, Germany. John is the Deputy Vice Chair of Chapter Development, and I want to ask John. What’s this talk I’m hearing about, the German elections, they just brought in the right wing. The right-wingers are taking over Germany! Oh no, looko out, duck! John thinks not quite so much. And then we'll pick up your calls for Dennis and John. Any questions you have about these.We'll be right back.


And welcome back, 21 minutes past the hour, it's the Thom Hartmann radio program, broadcasting from Stadtsteinach, Germany, and I am, you were just hearing from Dennis O’Donohue, who is the Stuttgart Chairman of Democrats Abroad, Germany. These are volunteer posts for you guys, by the way. You actually have real jobs. And it’s sort of like being in the local Democratic Party, it is the local Democratic Party. It’s the Abroad Democratic party.

And John McQueen is also with us. John is the Deputy Vice Chair of Chapter Development. And John, the headlines in the “Financial Times” from the day before yesterday were, you know, implying, and certainly the headlines in the American papers. You know, “The Right-Wing has won in Germany.” And not just Germany. Several of the countries of Europe that had elections, and you know, Gordon Brown is kind of like the last liberal standing and the conservatives are just steamrolling the country. Reading the article, though, in the “Financial Times”. (a) I don’t know what they mean by conservative, because the conservatives here are, you know, all in favor of national health care and all these kind of things, and (b) it’s actually a very different story than that. Tell us about it.

John McQueen: It’s a different story because it’s a different kind of system. People in Germany vote twice in an election. They vote once in their local district for a candidate of a major party, and then they’re allowed to indicate the party that they favor nationally. So if I vote for a Social Democrat locally, I might vote for the Greens nationally. And so these votes are tallied differently, and only half the parliament is directly elected at the local level, and the other half comes through the party system.

Thom Hartmann: Is that the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, no?

John McQueen: That’s the Bundestag. The Bundestag has normally five hundred and ninety eight members. Two hundred and ninety nine districts are directly elected, and two hundred and ninety nine come from party lists by each state. Now, given the desire of the right wing in the United States to think that Germany is moving right, it’s a lot of wishful thinking. There's actually four fantastic stories coming out of this election, and none of them involve the right getting any great advantage. In fact, the right has lost in this election, and I’ll tell you.

Thom Hartmann: Yeah, I want to know that. I just wanted to make one quick funny. I think it’s so great that the Germans could put politicians in buildings that are named 'rat'. It's like the mayor's office, that's the Rathaus, and the Bundesrat. Sorry, bad joke. So, why was this election good news for what we would call liberals and bad news for what the Germans would call conservatives?

John McQueen: Well, it’s bad news for what Germans call conservatives. I’ll go there first, because it might not necessarily be good for liberals. It might be more good for extreme leftists, but not so much for liberals. The most conservative German party is the Christian Socialist party in Bavaria. They now are their lowest. They have been in control of Bavaria for almost sixty years, and they are now at their lowest level. They’ve lost another two percent in this election.

In local elections, state elections, in Brandenburg, the one right-wing party, and you have to make a distinction between truly right-wing neo-Nazi, nativist, racist parties, and more central conservative parties. But the right-wing party in Brandenburg was thrown out of the parliament this time; they lost almost all of their support.

But the big story is really the decline of the two major parties, the SPD, and the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Socialist Union. That’s the really big story. The second big story is the rise of the Free Democrats, which is a centrist party. A lot of people think that they’re right, but they’re more of a centrist party. They don’t call themselves the liberals for no reason.

The third story really is the rise of the left party; the old party from East Germany is now respectable in the West, and the record-setting performance by the Greens. But even more importantly, much like in the United States, is the decline of voter participation. It’s down to seventy percent - and we can only dream in the US of having a seventy percent turnout - but that’s the lowest level ever in Germany, and added to that the six percent that did not vote for any party that made it into a parliament, means that you have more than one third of the people who did not participate by voting for a parliamentary party.

Thom Hartmann: So, John, bottom line. Progressive ideals, liberal ideals, are being embraced. The right is being rejected. It sounds like this is what you’re saying. Why is it then that the newspapers all over the world are saying, “Oh, They’re gonna go Right. Merkel’s gonna cut taxes.”

John McQueen: Well, the reason is because Merkel was associated with the Social Democratic Party, and they were the big losers in this election. And so, from the very beginning, she made it very clear she did not want to continue to have what they called the Big Coalition, the Große Koalition, here. She wanted to have a coalition with what are called the Yellows, the gelbe Partei, the Free Democrats, the liberals, because of their stance on government: they are anti-bureaucratic. They want to lower taxes. They’re almost like our Blue Dogs, and the old established Republican liberals, if you will. The business orientated type party. That’s where the FDP is, and who Angela Merkel wanted to work with. She is the most popular politician in Germany, and she managed to pull it off by using the second votes of her own party, in support of the FDP, she managed that both the CDU/CSU, and the FDP would get to the point where they have a majority in the parliament.

Thom Hartmann: Amazing. So, it is still a very progressive nation.

John McQueen: Absolutely.

Thom Hartmann: And embracing what in the United States would be called socialist principles, obviously, by and large, or at least Democratic Socialism, not Marxist Socialism, but European.

John McQueen: It’s not Marxist Socialist. There are large elements of the linke Partei are Marxist, pretty Marxist, but for the most part it’s Democratic Socialism.

Thom Hartmann: You actually have Marxists in the government?

John McQueen: Oh yes.

Thom Hartmann: In the party. Interesting.

Transcribed by Gerard Aukstiejus.

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