September 19, 2009

The Demise of the Public Option Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

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Would it surprise you to know that the administration of George W. Bush believed passionately in the concept of health care as a right, and worked to enshrine it in foundational legal documents? It's true; just not in the United States. [h/t]

Deep within the Iraqi constitution - drafted by the Bush Administration in 2005 and ratified by the Iraqi people - can be found the following:
Article 31:

First: Every citizen has the right to health care. The state takes care of public health and provide the means of prevention and treatment by building different types of hospitals and medical institutions.

Second: Individuals and institutions may build hospitals or clinics or places for treatment with the supervision of the state and this shall be regulated by law.

In other words, American conservatives support the idea of universal health care as a full-blown, consitutional right for Iraqis, but decry even a public option for insurance as creeping socialism, a government takeover of medicine, and the first step on the road to ruin, when it comes to their fellow citizens.

Republicans have concentrated on whipping their supporters into a collective, raging freakout over the idea that a public option would create a nation of welfare queens, while conveniently ignoring the many ways government programs have improved their lives. While impossible to know for sure, it's a virtual certainty that the town hall shouters and tea party marchers aren't living the "socialism-free" life they'd like to believe.

I'm willing to bet that even Glenn Beck, the cretinous liar who has become the face of anti-Obamaism, claims a tax deduction for his mortgage, thereby asking the rest of us to effectively subsidize his house; and that, as a Mormon, he probably supports tax exemptions for the Church of Latter Day Saints, thus asking other Americans to support his religious beliefs. Effective government programs are everywhere, despite the paranoid delusions of the hardcore right wing. There are state university tuition rates subsidized by out-of-state students; tax breaks for new businesses; unemployment insurance; farm subsidies; support for museums; public education and transportation; health care for seniors; health care for veterans; etc., etc., etc., etc. The list goes on and on.

The convenient, ignorant blindness of those opposing health care reform through declarations of anti-socialism was perhaps most recently best illustrated by the man who told Republican Congressman Bob Inglis to "keep your government hands off my Medicare." That, however, may have been surpassed in the last few days by GOP Representative Kevin Brady, a staunch tea partier, who protested that the taxpayer-funded Washington, DC Metro didn’t prepare sufficiently for the anti-government rally held in the nation's capital on September 12th. The moronic irony is wondrous to behold.

All of this, of course, was the backdrop this week, as Senator Max Baucus finally unveiled the health care reform bill he and 5 other members of the Senate Finance Committee have been working on for months, and which has been touted as the best hope for a bipartisan solution to the current debate. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has observed Republican tactics over the past decade - which apparently doesn't include Senator Baucus - the GOP promptly ignored it, despite the fact that the bill was tailor-made to address alleged conservative concerns by, most notably, completely excluding a public option for health insurance.

Worse for Senator Baucus - but better for pretty much everyone else - was the fact that his legislation garnered almost zero support from the usually self-destructive Democrats. Former Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean, a doctor himself, even went out of his way to publicly shred the bill:

The Baucus bill is the worst piece of healthcare legislation I've seen in 30 years... In fact, it's a $60 billion giveaway to the health insurance industry every year... It was written by healthcare lobbyists, so that's not a surprise. It's an outrage.
Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated that the House version of any health care reform legislation will contain a public option. Of some comfort is the fact that and whatever bill comes from the Senate can be amended to contain it, too, during the reconciliation process.

Make no mistake: this is vital. The cost of health insurance has risen 131% over the last decade, while wages have risen only 38% and inflation just 28%, a relative pace that is clearly unsustainable if health care is to be available to anyone other than the very wealthy. Even more strikingly, a new study just published in the American Journal of Public Health concludes that nearly 45,000 people die every year in the United States because they are uninsured:
Lack of health insurance is associated with as many as 44,789 deaths per year in the United States. The increased risk of death attributable to uninsurance suggests that alternative measures of access to medical care for the uninsured, such as community health centers, do not provide the protection of private health insurance.

Encouragingly, another study released this week in the New England Journal of Medicine reveals that almost three-quarters of physicians polled support either public-only or a mixture of public and private insurance, with just 27% backing private coverage exclusively. This, along with the commitment to reform President Obama exhibited in his speech to Congress last week, Mrs. Pelosi's statement, the general disapproval for Mr. Baucus' bill, and a new Senate effort to strip antitrust exemptions from the health insurance industry, is good news for those who believe that a public alternative is vital to forcing private insurance companies to compete and drive down prices.

Despite the best efforts of opponents to declare the public option dead, it very clearly is not. There is much more work to do in passing effective legislation that truly reforms health care, but momentum is rebounding, and there are some encouraging signs that one of the most intractable problems in American politics may finally be addressed in the near future.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has an excellent and succinct video about the public option:

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