Leader Blues

Friday, August 21, 2009

EDITORIAL >> First casualty is the truth

The shocking decline in the fortunes of health reform in this summer of discontent brought to mind a couple of aphorisms of the great humorist Josh Billings, whose fame dimmed too much alongside that of his contemporary, Mark Twain.

Billings, or Henry Shaw as his mother knew him, understood the frailties of the body politic in a democratic society. It is easily swayed by demagoguery, and it just as easily sways the government that it chooses.

“The wheel that does the squeaking is the one that gets the grease” was Josh’s most enduring line. What better describes the plummeting prospects for passage of comprehensive health-care reform in the Congress? Bands of wailing and angry people crowd into town-hall meetings to shout down their congressman, Republican or Democrat, and any voices in the crowd that are sympathetic to reform. Although the booing and screaming delegates are organized and motivated, they are a distinct minority of the public, which wants health insurance reformed so that everyone has access to medical care and it is affordable.

But the noisiness and sheer unruliness of the people persuades lawmakers, and maybe even the president, that perhaps it is best not to do very much after all.

The crowds give the appearance of a spontaneous uprising of the American people, which was the intent of the groups that organized the protests. Everyone with internet access has by now received one or another of the authoritative analyses of the legislation that lists a litany of horrors that the Democrats are trying to foist upon their unsuspecting constituents.

The protests are the same whether the venue is Little Rock, Plymouth, Mass., Dubuque or Colorado Springs. They are replayed on C-Span. Their objections are universally bogus: President Obama wants to emulate Hitler and kill off the disabled and incurably old and sick. The bills would provide free health care for illegal aliens at taxpayer expense. It is part of an Obama/Democratic plan to turn the United States into a socialist tyranny. People would be forced off their private insurance plans into a government-run health plan. Medical care would be rationed. The federal government would run the entire health-care system.

None of it is true although the protesters often claim to have read the place in one of the bills where it says illegals will be guaranteed care or where the aged and disabled will be cut off and allowed to die or where people will not have a choice of insurance plans or their doctor.

Oh, the other bit of wisdom from Josh Billings? “As scarce as the truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.”

There is no demand for the truth. At a raucous forum in Massachusetts the other night, people shouted down their congressman, the terminally gabby Barney Frank, when he pointed out their errors. They insisted that the bill pending in the House of Representatives guaranteed medical care for illegal aliens. Frank thumbed through the bill and read a section that said that nothing in the bill could be construed to provide health coverage to illegal aliens. Someone cited the boilerplate antidiscrimination section of the bill and said it covered illegals. It meant you couldn’t discriminate against people who are in the country illegally, they said. Frank went to that section and read it aloud repeatedly, pointing out each time that it made reference to exceptions elsewhere in the bill — the section specifically omitting coverage for illegals. The crowd drowned him out.

The protests that would be most amusing if they were not so disturbing are from Medicare beneficiaries who universally love the program and object to the government interfering with it. Occasionally, someone will fret that his or her Veterans Administration health care will be sacrificed. Medicare and VA are the two most popular (with their members) and efficient health services in the country. They are government run.

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette published a letter yesterday from a 77-year-old Hot Springs resident, which is typical of many that it runs and typical of the complaints at the forums at Little Rock. He loved his Medicare and was angry that care was going to be rationed. He heard that they were going to cut Medicare costs.

The insurance industry, which has made huge profits from Medicare Advantage plans since Congress and President Bush handed them a big subsidy in the Medicare drug law six years ago, has bombarded seniors with warnings about cutting Medicare and causing rationing. One of the proposals, indeed, is to reduce the taxpayers’ subsidy for the terribly expensive private plans. The big subsidy is speeding the insolvency of Medicare by years.

Here is the largest irony: It is the Republican Party that has demanded the curtailment of Medicare spending. Reining in Medicare was Sen. John McCain’s major plank in his run for the presidency.

The truth in this bizarre campaign is in short supply and in even less demand.

In the richest nation on earth, far more is spent on medical care and insurance than in any developed nation, but it is rationed to a far greater extent than in any of them. It is reflected in every health comparison from longevity to infant death rates.

Let us hope that Congress and specifically the timid men and women we send from Arkansas heed the largely silent and well-mannered majority and try to address the country’s most daunting and dangerous problems, the exploding expense and inefficiency of health care. This year.