Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Is Health Care Reform Still a Priority?

Before watching President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, I had concerns that health care reform would no longer be a real priority of his administration. I still feel that way now.

It wasn’t just that the President didn’t mention health care until about 30 minutes into his speech. It was the emphasis that the first 3 priorities for this country are jobs, jobs, and jobs. Most likely, this was in response to Republican criticism that he “wasted” all of last year on health care reform instead of jobs which they said should have been his real priority.

But President Obama never intended the health care reform process to take all year. He originally wanted to have a bill passed before the August recess, but that was delayed so his opponents could spend the August recess subverting the reform process during the heated town hall meetings that made the news almost every night. In fact, it took a heroic effort just to get a Senate bill passed by Christmas Eve.

But as vitally important as jobs are, a case can be made that health care reform is even more important. While losing a job is bad enough, getting seriously ill or injured without access to health care for lack of health insurance is more immediately devastating. It can lead to financial catastrophe and the loss of ones home. Even worse, it can lead to needless suffering or even death. In a previous posting,
Letting Those 44,000 People Die, a study showed that on average, 122 Americans die each day due to lack of health insurance. Only in America!

I think that much of the problem President Obama has in convincing others to support health care reform is due to his overly studious manner of explaining his positions. As NYT op-ed columnist Charles Blow writes in
Lost in Translation:

(President Obama) seems to believe that if he does a better job of explaining his aggressive agenda, then he’ll win hearts and minds. It’s an honorable ambition, but it’s foolhardy. People want clear goals, clearly defined and clearly (and concisely) conveyed. They’re suspicious of complexity.

Obama has to accept that today’s information environment is broad and shallow, and we now communicate in headline phrases, acerbic humor and ad hominem attacks. Sad but true.
While the president explains the nuances of his health care reform package, his opponents are responding with catch phrases like avoiding “the government takeover of health care” which are far more effective at stirring up emotional support. By the way, it annoys me how every Republican who appears on political interview shows unfailingly speaks about health care reform using this phrase. But nobody ever calls them out on it despite the fact that the Democrats’ health care reform is primarily about exerting more control over the insurance companies who are getting rich while denying coverage and not the health care providers themselves.

The president says that if his reform doesn’t go through, many more will lose their insurance. This is like saying that a terminally ill person is going to be sick for a while longer. While that’s true, it greatly understates the situation. Instead of just talking about more people losing their insurance, he needs to say that over a hundred people are dying every day in the US from lack of health insurance and will continue to die each and every day that we delay health care reform! When viewed in this way, the robotic response about "the government takeover of health care” would come off as pretty insensitive, not to mention downright weak. And those whose plan is to delay health care reform until it dies will be seen as being the cold-hearted people they really are.

It’s far too easy for many in Congress to be disconnected from the plight that many of our uninsured have to endure. After all, many of these people are quite wealthy and enjoy excellent health benefits to boot. This would change if they were to see all of the people in line for free health care at the latest of the
Free Clinics just held in Hartford, CT. But instead, they stay away (most notably Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman) not wishing to be embarrassed. If the cause of health care reform was conveyed by the president and his supporters with the emotional passion of Ed Schultz in this video after he spent the day at the clinic in Hartford, we might well have had a bill signed into law by now.

But it takes much more than strong rhetoric. President Obama has said in numerous recent appearances that Congress has to "finish the job on health care" but without offering any guidance on how it’s to be done. Right now with newly elected Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown providing Republicans with the 41st vote to ensure a filibuster on any further Senate health care votes, the only way forward appears to be for the House to pass the Senate version as is, warts and all which can then go straight to the president’s desk for signing. The changes the House Democrats feel need to be made can then be passed later on in the Senate through a process called reconciliation which cannot be blocked by a Republican filibuster.

So far, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi says she doesn’t have the votes in the House to pass the Senate version as is. But the Obama team has to assess what other options, if any, there are for passing health care reform. If there are no other viable options, President Obama has to show leadership by getting the House Democrats in line to pass this historic piece of legislation. Once this is done, we can then make our top priorities jobs, jobs, and jobs with a clear conscience!

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