It's the "Idiocracy" in full swing as the mission by some potential beneficiaries to kill health care reform, if successful, would essentially amount to a self-inflicted wound.
"This is the season for catching the vapors" -- Biz Markie Were it not for the fact that this dark, life-imitates-art rendition of the Idiocracy was witnessed by millions, thanks to "YouTube" and the "liberal media," a tale of its kind would likely be considered far too far-fetched to be believed. But, the evidence remains. It was what it was. Thus, in the aftermath of the Darwinist, wild frontier-like, anti-consumer antics displayed by consumer opponents of very consumer-friendly health care reform during this summer's Town Hall meetings, I find myself again confronted with a dizzying array of questions about the type of people who comprise the radical right base of the Republican Party. Could it consist of persons so deeply gullible that they're spooked into believing that a pro-consumer expansion of health insurance benefits (coverage for private, doctor-patient end-of-life consultations) is actually a spectral plot to create morbid "death panels" to determine whether the elderly and chronically ill younger folks need to line up for government-mandated euthanasia?
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Could cognitive dissonance be the reason many of those with coverage are petrified at the prospect of a "government worker standing between me and my doctor" yet somehow are okay with their plan's "denial of claim" specialist standing there instead?
How do they square their contempt for the "socialistic" concept of "government-run" health insurance with the reality of their protective embrace of their own "government-run" Medicare, Medicaid or VA coverage?
Finally, from what angle does one approach the logic behind the thinking of people who marginalized traditional grassroots community organizing during the recent presidential campaign, yet today gleefully accept their role as useful idiots to a corporate grassroots organizing scheme designed to incite the potential beneficiaries of health care reform into outworking the industry's own paid lobbyists to derail the effort?
Send in the Clowns
The presence of such an astonishing degree of non-cognizance among presumably educated folks is something that's not easy to grasp. Yet, as it has been so theatrically demonstrated this summer, a bizarro world of off-kilter populism does exist. In fact, it flourishes within a group that moves with all the force and significance of a hopelessly misguided swarm of cracked-out Howard Beales. They are the comparatively small, highly vocal and disturbingly effective victims of the synthetic hysteria dredged up by the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries and their paid-off shills in the House and Senate who invaded Town Hall meetings across the country during mid-Summer -- mob deep and in some cases, packing heat. Sent in to the Town Halls as part of a coordinated effort to purposely shout down the democratic process, their goal of course, was to prevent President Obama from achieving his goal of wide-ranging health care reform. Their approach to reasoned debate? Simply mimic the conduct of incorrigible children by tightly placing their hands over their ears, slamming their eyes shut and repeatedly yelling (in this case) "just say no!" Talk about a "shout-out." There's no trace of a whisper campaign here folks, just shameless "political gangsta-ism" GOP-style. Considering what's at stake in the absence of fairly far-reaching reform -- including the likelihood of increases in consumer bankruptcy of which 62 percent are medically-related and home foreclosure rates -- the enormous amount of civic energy generated by consumer opponents at the Town Halls could have perhaps been put to more practical use volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Of course the chance of that ever happening is beyond unlikely since at this point it's probably apparent that those earlier questions centered not on the folks who cannot, but those who wish not to connect the dots. In other words, the so-called astro-turfers; the bussed-in cadres of silly health insurance industry agent-provocateurs boorishly masquerading as "concerned" citizens. The programmed sock-puppets organized by segments of the industry for one purpose: to construct a solid wall of phony agit-prop to block out the facts about the nature of the President's push for health care reform. They bring new meaning to the term "health care proxy" in that they function on behalf of the health insurance industry, not those struggling to deal with it. It apparently matters little to such political pack-mules that the fruits of such counteractive toil -- undertaken during the dog days of summer when ordinarily most of them would be off on vacation somewhere -- would be a net loss for health care consumers (like them) while simultaneously ensuring that industry big-wigs like the head of United Health Group (UNG), the nation's second largest health care insurer and a key organizer of the opponents, will continue to "earn" his reported $102,000 per hour salary. It's not a stretch to presume that compensation of that magnitude to a single health insurance CEO has to have a direct impact on the cost to those covered by UNG and affect some influence on its denial of coverage rates.
If this holds true, why then, should the grunt work of maintaining that status-quo be the job of consumers? Moreover, how have so many presumably intelligent folks got it so twisted that they see themselves as the right persons for a job so inimical to their interests?
Let's be open about a distinction being made. Clearly, many reform opponents are propelled by ignorance and some by their own sense of paranoia; but many others are simply "crazy" like a fox. No one here would quarrel with skeptics or critics who showed up at the Town Halls for the purpose of having their questions honestly answered. However, there's little need to be anything less than point-blank about the reprehensible character of those who deliberately disrupted the meetings and basked in the sheepish indulgence exhibited, with few exceptions, by politicians of both parties. They are no less than -- to take liberty with a statement by Clarence Thomas -- 21st Century lynch mobs. In their programmed fury, they seem oblivious to the fact that for all practical purposes, they are being thoroughly pimped out by health insurance interests in a manner that would make Velvet Jones blush. Thus, hopefully it's understood that it's not the concerned citizens who concern me; it's the "concerned" citizens, if you know what I mean. The shysters who transformed what should have been a righteous display of civic responsibility into a "forgive them for they know not what they do," carnival of crass absurdity. The "Johnny-come-latelys" who have stepped into the arena of fiscal responsibility and civil dissent eight years too late. The ones who showed up fully-strapped for a Town Hall meeting on health care reform carrying signs alluding to issues that have nothing to do with the topic and behave as though they just happened to stumble upon a contemporary, albeit extended version of George Orwell's daily two-minute hate sessions from the novel 1984. In a way, who could blame anyone for thinking they made a wrong turn somewhere while on their way to Town Hall? Amidst the mindless shouting and slurs; the macabre "joker" Obama placards; the symbolism evoked by the swastikas, other Nazi imagery and dangling effigies; the furrowed-brow finger-pointing and scuffles; and the semi-automatic weapons and death threats (including one serious enough to force cancellation of at least one series of Town Halls), one would indeed find it difficult to believe he or she is at a venue designed to rationally discuss health care. Yet it is all true. America's Town Hall meeting places became transformed, in the summer of '09, into idiocratic venues where speech was chilled not by sinister innuendo; but was instead brutally gunned down in mid-sentence by reprobate "defenders of freedom." The freedom-lovers are those who can't seem to stomach freedom of speech by both sides of an issue and had the audacity to further ratchet up the level of their indignation when it was charged that their tawdry behavior is decidedly "un-American."
Certainly, there are legitimate questions to be addressed about the direction of reform which, if enacted in the most progressive version, would alter the nation's health care status-quo in a manner not seen in over 40 years. Therefore it is quite understandable for middle and upper-middle class Americans, particularly those who have health insurance, to demand to know whether such change is something they can believe in.
But the fact is, at some point change of some type will have to come. According to the National Coalition on Health Care (NCHC), the country's health care expenditures are expected to reach $2.5 trillion in 2009 or, 17.6 percent of the gross domestic product. These costs are expected to nearly double (to $4.4 trillion) by 2018. According to Time magazine, health care costs account for one-sixth of America's economy and are estimated to increase to one-third in 30 years. Tax dollars currently pay roughly 50 percent of those costs.
Meanwhile, the NCHC reports that annual employer-sponsored health care premiums have increased by 119 percent over the past 10 years. Health care liabilities generated by that kind of spending undermine the financial stability of major businesses both large and small as many laid-off autoworkers for example -- most of who lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs -- now know.
Currently, about 60 percent of all Americans are covered by private insurance which the majority are reported to be content with. Unfortunately, 1 of every 6 Americans is uninsured mostly due to an inability to pay, according to a recent Gallup poll. Any proposals for reforming health insurance in a way that brings in the millions who can't pay should, indeed, spark concern about how, and to what extent it will be funded, as well as its effect on those who now have coverage. It is also important that the truly concerned have an opportunity to clarify misconceptions about reform. Would reform include effectively gutting the Hyde Amendment by permitting the direct use of federal dollars to pay for abortions? Would illegal immigrants be eligible? Would it lead to a federal government takeover of the private health insurance industry? Would it ration health care by, among other things, legalizing the practice of euthanasia? In mid-August, at least one poll showed that most Americans believe "yes" to be the answer to each of those questions. In fact, the answer to each is no. While some of those questions may come off as foolish, raising them is hardly inappropriate. Unfortunately, obtaining answers had been hard to come by in the raucous, idiot-friendly atmosphere of many Town Hall meetings where any number of opponents showed up prepared to loudly rebut the plan even as they complained that they don't know what's in the plan. The irony is that some polls have shown that support increases as the public gains more knowledge of the proposed reforms.
One might think that at some point, it would become necessary for anti-reform consumers to consider who truly gains in their effort to thwart reform. If given the choice, how many consumers would choose to dig in their own pockets to pay for an end-of-life consult with their physician if the tab for that expense can be picked up by their insurer? Shouldn't consumer critics find it worth pondering who benefits from the elimination of proposals to expand health care "portability," a concept that, by adding to the public's range of choices among health insurers, represents the essence of pro-consumer free-market capitalism? Meanwhile, it shouldn't be too difficult to figure out who gains by killing proposals to bar insurers from denying or dropping coverage for those with preexisting and/or chronic illnesses. Such reforms would eliminate a barrier of discrimination. They also have the potential of significantly reducing health care costs since roughly three-quarters of medical costs in America pays for treatment of preventable chronic illnesses.
Certainly, of all the tactics employed on behalf of the health care lobby this summer, perhaps nothing generated as much controversy as the appalling lengths taken to shape public perception of end of life consults, fiendishly misrepresented as "death panels." That this ploy achieved some level of success should surprise no one. After all, who wouldn't strongly, if not physically object to government-mandated sessions designed to counsel, even encourage the idea of prematurely ending of one's life, with the caveat that a co-payment is required!
Portrayed in such sinister fashion, it depicts the rather macabre exercise of a eugenics-inspired health care cost-control mechanism where the elderly and chronically-ill face two choices: either euthanasia or being granted what amounts to a "stay of execution" -- at least until the next government-mandated counseling session. Yet, despite the cavalier certainty expressed by opponents in claiming that "death panel" language is part of health care reform, anyone who actually read the language of this simple amending of the Social Security Act, would realize that the claim is a flat out lie. Nevertheless, the profile of the fictitious "Obama Death Panel," an indeed effective bit of fear-provoking misinformation constructed by Betsy McCaughey, the obviously over-imaginative chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, was raised higher resulting from statements by the GOP's two major faces, "sideshow" Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh; as well as by congressional insiders like Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who, as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, clearly knows better; and, of course, by the suddenly ubiquitous Newt Gingrich.
Newt chose an August appearance on Meet the Press to step further into the discredited closet of quack analysts and knee-deep into the "Chicken Little" wing of the GOP with his assertion that health reform legislation "has all sorts of panels." According to Gingrich, "You're asking us to trust turning power over to the government when there clearly are people in America who believe in establishing euthanasia, including selective standards."
But while this bleak scare tactic by the GOP has been effective in inciting fear about health care reform, it may turn out to be the proverbial gilded lily. Promoting such an obvious falsehood could have the effect of arousing interest about health care reform among the otherwise disinterested, causing these folks to examine the issue -- including the fictitious death panels and their GOP promoters -- much more closely. Taken with a recent NBC News poll which indicated that the more people know about proposals for health care reform the more they support it, for the GOP, the end result of being exposed as promoters of such outlandishly debunk-able misinformation may turn out to be one of many death knells for their party.
How ironic would it be if it turned out that the GOP "deathers" were indeed correct in pushing the death panel angle only to later discover that they were misinformed as to the panel's make-up? Right now, what's killing the GOP is it's continuation along the deceitful and politically-suicidal path being constructed by the likes of panelists Palin, Limbaugh and Gingrich. None of these republicans hold elected office, yet they are among the most influential and well-known faces of the GOP. They are also driving out the Party's remaining moderates, swelling the ranks of independents (and, to a lesser extent, the democratic base), while in the process, effectively draining the GOP of its political significance.
If the antics of this past summer represent the future political policy direction of the GOP, what lies ahead is a politically toothless fringe party filled with wacky, post-rational, counter-populists of the type who invaded Town Halls across America and transformed them into a month-long broadcast of the Jerry Springer Show.
Despite critics' bashing so-called "socialized" health care, it might not be such a bad thing, as some of them already know
What is one to make of people who base a major part of their opposition to health care reform on the baseless charge that a proposed government-administered public option amounts to yet another example of creeping encroachment on free-market capitalism by a "socialist" President of questionable national origin? Particularly when many of these critics are covered under Medicare, the Veteran's Administration, or the federally-paid health care indulged in by members of Congress?
Perhaps the answer may be difficult to come by. What isn't that hard to conclude however, is that the foundation supporting much of the antagonism against the President Obama from both elected Republicans and the party's hard-right base, is the belief that a socialist agenda underlies his Administration's domestic policy goals. For many of these critics, that agenda was evident during the political activity surrounding the government bail-out of the financial market and is now working its way into health care reform.
They view the government as having no role in the management of health care costs or the manifestation of medical care. However, when one considers the silence by many of these same critics during the period that George W. Bush successfully expanded the government-run Medicare program -- by establishing the Part D prescription drug benefit -- such criticism is, as best, absurd and at worst, suspect.
Perhaps the "socialist agenda" critics' apparent unwillingness to mobilize against Bush's expansion stemmed from an absence of prodding by pro-health care industry special interest groups. But why would such groups bother? The Bush Administration's plan prohibits the government from partaking in the consumer-friendly practice of negotiating lower prices with prescription drug companies, something that is permitted in most other federal programs. Therefore, the Part D expansion did nothing to hold down prescription drug prices which of course, is fine with the drug companies. In any event, it's fairly well known that prescription drug industry representatives were deeply involved in the drafting of Medicare's Part D legislation.
From my point of view, the private health insurance establishment should perhaps be grateful that its worst fear about the type of reform now being proposed is merely the potential for competition from a non-profit, government-sponsored public option. One can just imagine how it might react if the proposed reform were far more radical. How it would respond to a proposal for a completely free-market system where patients pay fair market premiums only when they are well, but not required to pay when they are ill and whenever hospitalization is required?
Considering that catastrophic health care costs can result from even short hospital stays, a free-market system structured in a manner that forces preventative care certainly has the potential for fostering a healthier America. But it could also mean the industry would lose a sizable amount of the tons of money Americans currently spend on health care. And those losses would have nothing to do with "socialized" medicine.
"Weathering" the storm
What's ironic is that while socialism probably ranks among the most incendiary of the hot button issues burning in the minds of most hard-right conservative "patriots," its application in the health care field may not necessarily be a bad idea for the America they so fervently claim to love. For example, when the People's Republic of China's Cooperative Medical System (CMS) communal-style health care delivery approach ended in the early 1980's in favor of privatization, it concluded a 20-year period of government-run health care during which China's life expectancy rate increased nearly 100 percent, (from an average of 35 to 65 years) and incidents of sexually transmitted disease dropped to almost none. In other words, America's Future Adversary became far healthier during its period of socialized medicine, which obviously, considering China's role as America's current loan provider, has worked out quite well for that country. Meanwhile, here at home, consideration needs to be given to the seemingly anomalous findings of an intriguing bit of research by University of Michigan Professor Arline Geronimus, who once served as a mentor at a New Jersey Planned Parenthood. In short, her interest in determining the root cause of teen pregnancy eventually led to a finding that the infant mortality rate is actually lower for African-American teenage mothers than that of African-American mothers in their 20s and older. According to Geronimus, in a write up that can be found here, this seeming reversal of the statistical norm suggests that the average African-American woman may be less healthy at 25 than she was at 15. Geronimus hypothesizes that factors, among which include years of limited or complete in-access to preventative health care, results in a physical process she describes as "weathering." Thus, other nations' populations experience a doubling of life expectancy, in part, due to those nations' willingness to provide government-sponsored health care access to all. Meanwhile, despite spending more on health care; being home to the finest and most up-to-date medical facilities; providing the most innovative treatment methods; and the world's most accomplished medical schools, most prestigious hospitals, and the finest licensed medical professionals, America remains a nation ranked 50th in life expectancy, as well as a place where vast segments of its population "weathers" the storm that is the current debate on health care reform -- in more ways than one.
-- Anthony Barnes
Anthony Barnes, of Boston, Massachusetts, is a free-lance writer who leans toward the progressive end of the political spectrum.
"When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to (more...