Leader Blues

Friday, November 27, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Astroturfing health care

You must have noticed how vitriolic, personal and expensive the debate over health-insurance reform has become, even under the civilizing influence of central Arkansas. Over the public airwaves there are accusations of betrayal and traitorous conduct by public officials and threats of reprisal. They are carried out occasionally on a personal level.

Since the House of Representatives and Senate moved finally toward action on medical insurance bills, commercials sandwiched around cable TV shows have warned us of doom for our way of life if Congress passes a health-reform bill, and they identify the evildoers who are responsible: the lawmakers who vote for the bills or allow a debate on them.

If you catch the tagline on political ads you are now familiar with the 60 Plus Association, which purports to be an organization of senior citizens interested in protecting the well-being of the elderly. The current 60 Plus ads feature two old-timers from Conway, Don Thomas and Jim Elliott, who say that Rep. Vic Snyder “betrayed” the seniors of Arkansas by voting for the health bill in the House and tell the elderly that they should “never forget” what Snyder did to them. He voted to raise taxes on small businesses, reduce people’s Medicare coverage and have the government determine who your doctor will be when it takes over health care. None of that happens to be true, but these gentlemen sure look and sound sincere — and worried.

The 60 Plus Association has nothing to do with old folks. It is a creature of the big drug manufacturers (Merck, Pfizer, Wyeth-Ayerst, Hanwha International Corp.), who bankroll these commercials. The National Association of Manufacturers is a contributor. For a decade, it has been fighting for the pharmaceutical industry with commercials, lawsuits and lobbying. It supported a suit against the state of Maine for passing a law that tried to get drug discounts for the people of the state. It worked against federal assistance for the area hit by Hurricane Katrina. Its earliest fight was to eliminate the estate tax, the Teddy Roosevelt-era tax on the estates of multimillionaires.

The lovable actors in the central Arkansas commercials are a retired insurance broker (Thomas), who is one of the largest benefactors of the Republican Party in Arkansas and a longtime opponent of Snyder, and a retired State Police captain (Elliott), who spent his career in a Cadillac-quality government health insurance program. Two things in the health bills actually might affect the two seniors, if Medicare is now their principal payer. They would save lots of money on prescription drugs because the bills would close the so-called “doughnut hole” in prescription coverage. If they bought one of the Medicare Advantage plans, which entail a huge subsidy by the taxpayers to the insurance companies that offer the policies, their carrier might decide to dump the policyholders if the government reduces their subsidy, as both the House and Senate bills would do, and they would have to go back on regular Medicare with everyone else.

What bothers us most about these and many other ads on both sides of the question is not the vigorous advocacy for the cause or even the misleading descriptions of the issues, but their malevolence. They suggest that the men and women who vote for or against legislation deserve something more from you than your vote for or against them in the next election. They deserve your lifelong hatred and, if the occasion arises, incivility.

Internet traffic in our region was hastened the past three weeks by an email message from the wife of a prominent Little Rock physician gloating about how she and nine other women, partying at a little restaurant on Little Rock’s Cantrell Road, humiliated Representative Snyder and his wife, who had gone out for a quiet dinner two nights after the health-care vote in the House. She described the encounter to friends after she got home that night, and her account circulated through the Republican network and the exclusive subdivisions of Little Rock’s west side that, as a former senator once said, Medicare helped build. The messages did not take note of the fact that the author of the email and her husband have been contributing to Snyder’s opponents since the late 1990s and that they were holding a fund-raiser at their riverview mansion for Tim Griffin, the former Karl Rove aide who is running against Snyder this year after gaining some notoriety for his role in expelling federal prosecutors, including our own, for not being sufficiently political in their prosecutions.

“Tonight was something straight out of the movies,” began the gentle lady’s letter to friends who were not lucky enough to have been in the Graffiti’s dining room. The girls had been partying for an hour or so when Snyder and his wife, a United Methodist minister, came in for dinner. After the couple was seated, the women went over in waves to tell them they resented the congressman’s voting for the health bill. She said they soon had Snyder’s wife in tears. Snyder tried to be cordial, thanking them for their views, but the doctor’s wife said she told him, “I was married to Glenn Davis, a physician and that we were going to do all we could to see that he was not re-elected.”

When Snyder went to pay his bill, his wife dropped by the table where the women were still partying and said it would be better if they called the congressman’s office to tell him their views. The doctor’s wife said she gave the preacher a piece of her mind. “I looked her in the eye and said ‘Vic works for me and I can say whatever, whenever I want and he should be ashamed to vote yes for this bill.’ I said we would like to have the same health care plan they and their four kids have, one boy and a set of triplets (under a year old), at their age, who is paying for that?” As the couple was leaving she and her friends chimed “hope you enjoyed the dinner we just paid for.”

“It was so great,” she said and admonished all her friends: “Keep after these people.”

We should pray that others have a finer observance of the grace that has always bound us in times of political disagreement.

Given the tenor of the year, maybe we should merely hope that people do no worse.