The healthcare reform effort underway in Washington, DC, sounds a lot like a really bad annual benefits meeting to me. Healthcare policy discussions and formal hearings are not filled with the sounds of crafting policies to guarantee what candidate Barack Obama termed a human right. Formal discussions center instead around all sorts of heady and wonky words and phrases, like "benefit connectors" and "cost containment" or "reinsurance" and "tiered benefits" or "payment incentives and physician bonus opportunities." There are very few people walking the healthcare-is-a-human-right talk.
I've heard all this sort of pitching many times before as insurance agents and intermediaries peddled their wares in conference rooms and break rooms for employers I've worked for over the years.
Truly. It feels like those mandatory meetings employers call when the insurance benefit year is about to turn over and the company has had to renegotiate plans for the umpteenth time in recent years. The meetings feature a rundown of plans made available - and in recent years the options grow ever more expensive, ever less comprehensive and ever more complex. That's the talk in the Senate finance committee and the Senate health committee and some of the caucuses in the House.
My head spins, my eyes glaze over and the for-profit insurance companies are taking it all in and waiting in arrogant anticipation of the signing of the final national contract - or our healthcare reform legislation, as the politicians turned insurance sales reps and benefits administrators will sell it soon.
Listen to the talk about healthcare. We've come a long way from candidate Obama's calm and assured response to a debate question. In the fall, Obama confidently asserted for the world to hear that healthcare is a human right - even in his America. He did not attach any benefit exclusion clauses to that comment or ask us to begin thinking about which tier of benefit plans our family would purchase. It would have been odd to try to explain why some families belong in the bronze level human rights plan, others are silver plan human rights member while the best and brightest can afford gold level human rights, wouldn't it? Yet that's the garbage we're now hearing here as healthcare reform.
But now, we have to suffer the long and excruciating benefits drill on a national level - and if the U.S. Senate has its way, you and I and every other American will be able to purchase the human right to healthcare based on our financial stations in life. If we're middle class (shrinking though our ranks may be), we'll choose what fits in the family budget - not necessarily what protects our families. And if we're not doing so well, well then we'll get to go through demeaning and embarrassing needs testing by government bureaucrats (actually working on our dime for the insurance industry) who will determine if we get a subsidy to purchase the same lousy and flawed benefits.
Oh, yes, they'll force (wink, wink - handshake under the table) the insurance industry to cover all who can purchase their plans. What a big, bad joke on all of us. What a shameful way to pretend we believe healthcare is a human right.
But what are the alternatives now? Can this President who lost his mom to cancer as she fought with the bills and insurance company and who proclaimed healthcare to be a human right in this nation - our nation - show the political courage it will now take to actually back that talk? I think he can - but I am less sure if he wants to. He's got some front folks doing some pretty smooth talking right now, only this time, he isn't quite getting it that Americans are dying and suffering as he guides the talk towards the biggest, most complex and convoluted healthcare policy this nation has ever imagined.
We "lucky" insured Americans, are still sitting in those conference rooms, Xerox machines humming and spewing warm air into the room and clutching our latest employer benefit contract booklets upon which we'll be asked to gamble our families' futures and our own lives as we choose from for-profit, private insurance plans meant to make us feel secure while not actually protecting us from physical and financial ruin. And then we'll exclaim our relief at being able to "keep what we've got" and go back to our cubes or our desks or our work stations calculating the latest dent to our take-home pay but grateful to have a job and any coverage at all.
Especially during times of recession, many of us with jobs and benefits feel a sort of survivors' guilt and we wait for a time when our neighbors and friends will have jobs again and won't suffer so much. Those suffering often do so quietly - like my family did - embarrassed and ashamed and using every ounce of energy just to stay afloat as past due notices, collection agency bills and disconnect notices from the utility companies stack up on kitchen table reminding us that this recession will hurt us a whole lot more than the government leaders we have so generously funded with our votes and our taxes.
Is any of this the talk of human rights? No. Not even for one moment. Even the talk of a healthcare public option for purchase is little more right now than a nod to those fighting for sanity and common sense in developing a publicly financed, privately delivered healthcare system. Placating the human rights folks while enriching the market babies doesn't fool anyone - it's a scam. Even if we "insure" kids first through S-CHIP, we still haven't grasped the concept - come on now, how many new customers are the American people supposed to pay for in this insurance industry bail-out?
You see, I'd even like to hear them (the Congress or the President) be honest about giving us the same healthcare security they have at our expense. Every one of them has access to a doctor - always and without a co-pay or deductible - in special taxpayer funded medical offices should they ever need care. Not one of them needs to think about an emergency room bill or lost work time if they get sick. That's what a human right looks like and feels like. Care given when care is needed. Period.
If this President and this Congress choose to create a huge bureaucracy and huge expense simply to administer a horribly and unnecessarily complex benefit plan for all Americans at the hands of the private, for-profit insurance industry, I think we'll need to rise up and demand they give up all taxpayer-funded medical services and insurance plans and live in the healthcare world where the rest of us live until they get it. Oh, and they ought to lose pay and status for every day they miss working for me in my Congress and my White House. Until they get it.
On the other hand, when they get serious about healthcare as a human right, the hearings will include all voices and all realities in this broken system and all the clear and concise solutions available for this mess. When they get honest, they won't need to stack the deck with industry darlings who stay on message - they'll embrace solutions that grant a human right not slam through decisions that profit an already bloated and abusive system.
Until I get the healthcare as human right status my President said he supported, no one who serves at the pleasure of my vote and lives well on the income I provide should live without regard for my suffering and worry. This isn't supposed to be a bad benefits meeting being held to protect an already wildly profitable industry - we're supposed to be reforming healthcare. And it's the stuff of human rights. Adjourn the bad benefits meeting, Mr. President. Remember your mom's struggle and honor your nation with the tough stuff of making sure human rights are finally recognized and protected in healthcare policy. Anything less dishonors us all and maybe moms with cancer most of all.
Donna Smith is a community organizer for the California Nurses Association and National Co-Chair for the Progressive Democrats of America Healthcare Not Warfare campaign. Originally posted at CommonDreams.org.