Friday, August 7, 2009

Healthcare Smackdown

Fed by disinformation, delaying tactics and disruptive behavior many recent local townhall meetings have morphed into world wresting federation smackdowns. It is time for President Obama to assume more of a leadership role on health care or he and America will suffer a serious defeat.

Currently health care legislation is in the intensive care unit on Capitol Hill where Senators and Congressmen are struggling to put together a consensus on several incredibly complicated and controversial issues. For instance, how do we cover everyone? How do we offset the enormous costs projected from a new plan? Should there be a federal option? How do we make certain that those who are happy with their current health care will be able to keep it? Is it appropriate to include voluntary end of life counseling?

Enacting health care legislation is certain to impact just about everyone in some fashion, so there is an enormous amount at stake. And emotions are running high as Congressional committees continue to wrangle over the complicated details of a plan. It is an ideal atmosphere for exploitation by special interest groups, who spend millions of dollars on campaign donations and public relations to protect their profits, and for good old politics as usual.

Take former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, a favorite among conservative Republicans. On her Facebook page she declared President Obama's health care plan is "evil." She posted, “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society' whether they are worthy of health care." Of course, she knows President Obama has made no such proposal.

Conservative talk show commentator Sean Hannity's Web site displayed a banner, "Become part of the mob," referring to Congressional townhall meetings. The Website Tea Party Patriots circulated a memo reading in part, "Yell out and challenge the Rep's statement early." It went on, "Get him off his prepared script and agenda...stand up and shout and sit right back down." Conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh said that the administration's health care logo is similar to the Nazi symbol. Glenn Beck, another conservative host, exhorted his audience to join in the ruckus, as did many local Republican organizations throughout the country. Of course, now some Democrats and unions are fighting back. Sure, free speech is great as long as you agree with me!

Critics say, "What's the rush?" Today 45 million people are uninsured. More are being added to that number every day as people lose their jobs in this difficult economy. Those without coverage go to hospital emergency rooms when they need care, and the costs are ultimately passed on to everyone else. America already spends more money on health care than any other industrialized country, yet those countries offer health care to everyone. So there is a moral imperative to do something now.

Beyond that, today every American is feeling the effects of increasing health care costs, rising at about 7% per year and projected to reach $4.3 trillion in ten years, or about 20% of our economy. Employer health care costs are going up dramatically as well, and they are eating into profit margins and being passed along to the employees in the form of reduced coverage or higher co-payments. And if you are unfortunate enough to get sick you are likely to find out your plan does not provide adequate coverage, or you may be dropped from your plan in the future because of a "pre-existing" condition. No wonder health insurance companies are making huge profits.

The American health care system is innovative, for sure. But it is also inefficient. Critics cite waste, duplication and little built in incentive to control expenses as part of the reason for spiraling costs. President Obama has proposed a lower cost government alternative to compete with health insurance companies. He has pledged that those who like their current health plan can keep it. But opponents charge that this is a Trojan horse for a government run system. For instance, as former Governor Palin noted, "Who will suffer the most when they ration health care...the sick, the elderly and the disabled, of course?"

Many Americans are concerned that a new health care plan will add to the already burgeoning national deficit. While President Obama's goal is to lower the trajectory of the growth in health care costs, it is estimated that a new plan will add at least $1 trillion in additional costs the federal budget. Congressional negotiators are scrambling to find ways to offset this cost through savings and taxes on the rich.

These are but a few of the flashpoints that have arisen in this health care debate. Almost everyone agrees something has to be done about health care costs, but the devil, as always, is in the details. And given the recession, the government's missteps in managing the financial crisis and the political polarization that divides our country, cynicism and distrust are rampant. People are concerned about the unknown.

Disruptions, distortions and disinformation by opponents, many financed by the health industry, are beginning to wear on public opinion and will delay long overdue and much needed reform. So it is time to lower our voices, to listen to the facts, to be civil and thoughtful in our discussions of this critically important issue. After all, when it comes to health care we all know that the status quo is unacceptable.

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