While it’s comforting to just blame the GOP for the unhappiness with health reform threatening the president’s re-election, the truth is that Barack Obama repeatedly botched, bungled and bobbled the health reform message. There were three big mistakes:
The Passionless Play
While Candidate Obama proclaimed a passionate moral commitment to fix American health care, President Obama delved into legislative details.
When a Baptist minister at a nationally televised town hall asked in mid-2009 whether reform would cause his benefits to be taxed due to “government taking over health care,” Candidate Obama might have replied that 22,000 of the minister’s neighbors die each year because they lack any benefits at all. Instead, President Obama’s three-part reply recapped his plans for tax code fairness.
While Republicans railed about mythical “death panels,” and angry Tea Party demonstrators held signs showing Obama with a Hitler moustache, the president opted to leave emotion to his opponents. The former grassroots organizer who inspired a million people of all ages and ethnicities to flock to Washington for his inauguration never once tried to mobilize ordinary Americans to demand a basic right available in all other industrialized nations. In fact, he hasn’t even mobilized the nearly 50 million uninsured, who have no more favorable opinion about the new law than those with health insurance!
“GOP to the Uninsured: (Feel Free to) Drop Dead.” So reads the title Michael Millenson post at the Health Care Blog yesterday. It gets worse:
[N]o Republican presidential candidate has ever presented a serious plan to cover all the uninsured … The difference between Democrats and this generation of Republicans — unfortunately including even the GOP Doctors Caucus — is not at its core a disagreement on what government can legitimately do to help create universal access to health care for the 50 million Americans without it, but whether the goal itself is worth pursuing.
Was Millenson completely asleep (like Rip Van Winkle) during the last election? Does he not read my Wall Street Journal editorials? Does he never visit my blog? Or was this meant to be an April fool’s column?
John McCain’s health plan was more radical and even more progressive than Obama Care. I’ve never seen any serious health policy wonk deny that. Maybe Millenson doesn’t live in a battle ground state. If he did, he would know that the Obama campaign spent more money attacking the McCain health plan during the election than has ever been spent for or against a public policy idea in the history of the republic. In fact, it is probably no exaggeration to say that Obama successfully turned the election into a referendum on the McCain health plan!
The McCain health plan is discussed at this blog here, here, here, here and here.
And although Millenson singles out Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn as an especially egregious example of the Republican failure on health policy, the McCain vision actually was based on a bill, sponsored by Sen. Coburn and Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), along with Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Devin Nunes (R-CA), [hereinafter called the Coburn bill]. That bill, in turn, was based on an idea which Mark Pauly and I proposed in a Health Affairs article more than a decade ago. (Does Millenson not read Health Affairs?)
“We are now contemplating, Heaven save the mark, a bill that would tax the well for the benefit of the ill.”
That’s not a quote from oral arguments at the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act or from one of the earnest conservatives demonstrating against it outside. It’s actually the beginning of an editorial in the Aug. 15, 1949 issue of The New York State Journal of Medicine denouncing the pernicious effects of health insurance. To be clear: not government-mandated health insurance, but all third-party health insurance.
I wrote about that editorial in a July 16, 2009 blog entitled, “GOP to Uninsured: Drop Dead.” My blog was prompted by a Wall Street Journal op-ed the previous day from Dr. Thomas Szasz, an emeritus professor of psychiatry, who counseled readers not to confuse ethics and economics:
The idea that every life is infinitely precious and therefore everyone deserves the same kind of optimal medical care is a fine religious sentiment and moral ideal. As political and economic policy, it is vainglorious delusion….We must stop talking about “health care” as if it were some kind of collective public service, like fire protection, provided equally to everyone who needs it….If we persevere in our quixotic quest for a fetishized medical equality we will sacrifice personal freedom as its price.
This was a month before Oklahoma GOP Sen. Tom Coburn, a physician, told a sobbing, middle-aged woman that “government is not the answer” after she confessed she couldn’t afford care for her brain-injured husband. The crowd of Coburn constituents gathered to discuss health care reform applauded. And it was before Texas Rep. Ron Paul, also a physician, responded evasively when asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer at a September, 2011 GOP presidential debate what should be done about an uninsured 30-year-old working man in a coma.
If there’s one thing everyone in Washington can agree on it’s that prevention is good. And that’s about as far as the agreement goes.
As for the rest of it – who is responsible for prevention, how to define prevention, what is the government’s role in prevention, how much to spend on prevention and when to spend it – is not so clear, and wrapped up in the bitter politics (and difficult economics) of the day.
Then, there’s the question of the Prevention and Public Health Fund created by the Affordable Care Act to enable states and communities to try to prevent illness and promote longer, healthier lives. To backers of the law, the fund is an engine for public health, community transformation, and a pivotal part of the effort to create a “health care” system instead of a “sick care” system.
To foes, it’s a “slush fund”, a $13.8 billion monument to everything they don’t like about the 2010 legislation. It’s $13.8 billion that could easily end up on one of the deficit-cutting chopping blocks.