…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Remember Way Back in 2008, When Healthcare Was a Right?
Categories: Commentary, Healthcare

by Meg White

In these troubled times of imaginary death panels and “health insurance reform” itself on life support, it is comforting to go back to a time when not just crazy progressives, but standard-bearing Democrats insisted that healthcare is a right.

The dividing line between Democrats and Republicans seems to become more blurred with each passing day of the healthcare reform saga. Now that single-payer is dead and a public option is on the critical list, I’m just waiting for the Republicans to label the co-op plan as socialist, killing any kind of reform at all.

The problem is that Obama and some Democratic lawmakers seem to want that dividing line to disappear. They see it as a sign of partisan demarcation and as proof that a divided Congress cannot stand. So, for those who may have forgotten, I wish to call attention to what was the basic difference on healthcare between the two major candidates for president just under a year ago.

At one televised debate between presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, Tom Brokaw asked whether healthcare in America is a right, a privilege or a responsibility. McCain awkwardly called it a responsibility (perhaps because he couldn’t call it a privilege without sounding like an elitist). Obama, on the other hand, said healthcare is a right:

It should be a right for every American. In a country as wealthy as ours, for us to have people who are going bankrupt because they can’t pay their medical bills — for my mother to die of cancer at the age of 53 and have to spend the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies because they’re saying that this may be a pre-existing condition and they don’t have to pay her treatment, there’s something fundamentally wrong about that.

Back then, Obama was calling this a “fundamental difference” between himself and McCain. Oh, how times have changed. Yet some remnants of this basic distinction persist.

One of the best examples of this fundamental difference playing out in miniature within the healthcare reform theater is in the recent manufactured battle over death panels. Republicans seem to think the ability to die with dignity in the way one wants to is a responsibility or privilege belonging to the rich and terminally-ill only. Some Democrats who stood by end-of-life counseling even when it was unfairly labeled a “death panel” by craven conservatives — one of whom has received death threats for his advocacy of such rights –  believe that the right to die with dignity is just that: a right.

Although many a Republican has tacitly approved of the “deather” cause, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has been quite the proponent. After repeating wild claims about death panels well after they were debunked, Grassley announced last week they would be stripping end-of-life counseling services out of the healthcare bill moving through the Senate “because of the way they could be misinterpreted.”

Hmm, misinterpreted? Perhaps he’s referring to the people who believe that President Obama wants their grandma dead. I wonder where anyone would get that idea!

Oh, that’s it; people got that “misinterpretation” from Grassley himself, the lawmaker who recently said, “We should not have a government program that determines if you’re going to pull the plug on grandma.” Yes, the very politician who back in 2003 voted for pretty much the same provision in the Medicare overhaul orchestrated by his own party.

Of course, Grassley isn’t the only two-faced pol in this arena. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has recently done a similar flip-flop on end-of-life care. And the hypocrisy exists on the “local” level as well; anti-reform lobbyist Sarah Palin neglected to mention in all of her misleading, irresponsible talk over death panels that she supported such end-of-life counseling as governor of Alaska.

The saddest, yet most ironic thing about this conservative change of heart is that the absence of availability of end-of-life counseling could cause more seniors to lose control over the last days, months or years of their lives. Without being able to structure their own medical directives and living wills with their doctors, they cannot be assured that their wishes (be they to have every available technique used to prolong life, or to institute something such as a “do not resuscitate” order) will be obeyed.

This is really just one small illustration of how healthcare reform has become a political game in Washington instead of the life-or-death situation faced by Americans across the country every day. In an era where a conversation about a patient’s health is unfortunately not part of most doctors’ job descriptions, this is just the kind of provision that should be part of the final bill. Instead, it was demonized and extracted by the GOP.

Not only is this death panel argument symbolic of the larger belief of many conservatives that healthcare is a not a human right, but it is also indicative of the fact that the GOP is “unappeasable,” as Paul Krugman recently said in an interview with John Harwood on MSNBC:

It’s not actually about the end-of-life provisions. It’s not about this specific thing in the bill. They’re just going to grab onto anything and try to turn it into something awful. So they saw this, and it seemed to have something to do with end of life so they said, you know, “death panels.” It’s not about the substance, and that means you can’t actually satisfy the crazies by offering substantive concessions. What they hate is the whole idea of any kind of health reform, and more broadly what they hate is the whole idea of Democrats actually holding the White House.

The one thing that came out of that otherwise depressing exchange was the possibility that the White House might actually be beginning to see Krugman’s point. Harwood told Krugman that “a White House official told me today, ‘Our problem right now is, if we tell some of the Republican opponents in the Senate, ‘You can have everything you want in the bill,’ they still won’t vote for it.’”

So maybe, if nothing else, the executive branch is starting learn the rules of this game. And if Americans have to give up the right to universal access to healthcare, Democrats might at the very least grant us protection from ideologues who put getting elected above the well-being of their own constituents.


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