PUTTING THE OUCH IN THE VOUCH: Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels once famously didn’t say when he heard the word “culture,” he reached for his gun. For me, it’s the word “voucher” that makes my trigger finger itch. Getting a voucher is like being on a sinking ship and being given a life preserver that someone let the air out of. When you go to CVS and are handed one of their famously voluminous receipts that include a $3.39 rebate on future purchases of mango-papaya-guava-scented hair conditioner, that’s a voucher. When the famously gluttonous cartoon character Wimpy tells Popeye, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” that, too, is a voucher. Even 4-year-olds intuitively understand Popeye will never see a dime. I mention this because the voucher is the centerpiece for Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s master plan to tame out-of-control federal health-care spending. Republicans like Ryan because he’s abs with a brain, a ripped wonk who does push-ups while spewing out white papers. Given how he recently “mis-remembered” running a marathon a full hour faster than he actually did, I have my doubts Ryan — dubbed “Bowhunter” by his Secret Service protectors — is really the genuine exercise beast or hard-core egghead we’re led to believe. But I like him anyway because he’s the classic altar boy with a shiv. With all his talk about “my mom” — never “mother,” always “mom” — Ryan will lull you into a state of sentimental stupefaction, then stab you in the back. His weapon of choice, of course, will be the voucher.
Given the ridiculous cost of medical coverage and the expanding demographic bulge caused by aging baby boomers, Ryan and his band of born-again social Darwinists have set out to do some serious culling of the herd. To that end, they’ve proposed gradually doing away with the current system of Medicare — the federal health-insurance program designed to cover older Americans. Hey, if God wanted old people to play tennis, He would have given us all artificial hips at birth. As the next generation of oldsters starts to gray, we’ll be given federal voucher checks in lieu of coverage and told to go out unto the wilds of the private-insurance market and find a policy that fits our needs. What our capped government stipend doesn’t cover, we’ll have to pay out of our own pockets. It was this very proposal that prompted Newt Gingrich, a formidable right-wing gas bag in his own right, to accuse Ryan of “right-wing social engineering.” And while less colorful in his prose, no less than Ronald Reagan’s former budget director, David Stockman, has also assailed the plan. While Ryan — a pseudo-objectivist mystic who worships at the altar of the invisible hand — has waxed rhapsodic how vouchers will generate choice and competition that in turn will bring down prices — the more secular and sober-minded Congressional Budget Office estimated his plan would cost Medicare beneficiaries, on average, $6,400 a year. I don’t know how you plan to bridge that gap, but I’ll be robbing 7-Elevens.
Clearly, Ryan’s real strategy is to make Medicare even more complicated than it already is so that eligible beneficiaries — confused and frustrated — will just give up and die. And the system is already plenty complicated. My wife’s parents — who live outside Salt Lake City — have hit the age where they need all the care and attention their policies can provide. They recently hit a serious snag after purchasing a private-insurance policy to supplement their Medicare coverage — precisely the free-market scenario envisioned by Ryan. Without getting into all the confusing details, concerns soon surfaced whether my wife’s parents’ underlying coverage had been somehow compromised. There was reason to believe it could be cut off as of September 1. That’s scary stuff. My wife and her siblings jumped in, and they’re a formidable bunch. My wife, a mediator, is trained in the art of untying Gordian Knots. Her older sister is a surgical nurse, and her older brother an attorney. And before retirement, my wife’s mother worked as an executive secretary for a hospital administrator. In other words, these are people who know their way around big medical bureaucracies and fine print. Even so, all their concerted efforts to get a single human being from the private-insurance company that sold the supplemental policy in the first place — Humana — on the phone failed. For all their efforts, they could not penetrate Humana’s force field of protective voicemail. They had better luck navigating the Medicare bureaucracy, but the information they were given — always delivered in a conspiratorially helpful manner — was invariably wrong. Out of desperation, they contacted the office of Jim Matheson, the Utah congressmember who represents their parents’ district. Matheson is a Blue Dog Democrat who has managed to get himself elected and reelected in what by all rights should be an iron-clad Republican district. He now finds himself, yet again, in the fight of his political life, this time against Republican Mia Love, who — if she wins — will be the first female Republican African-American ever elected to Congress. All I know is Matheson’s staff worked their mojo. Helping out with a little not-so-subliminal body English was the office of Santa Barbara Congressmember Lois Capps. Out of all these exertions, someone from Humana finally called. The good news is that none of my wife’s parents’ coverage will be revoked. The bad news is that it took intervention from two members of Congress to straighten out what should have been a simple question. If Paul Ryan’s voucher plan were to go forward, I can guarantee Congress will get far more not done than it already isn’t. Our electeds will find their days consumed riding herd on the Humanas of the world. In the meantime, my wife’s family appreciates all the help they got. And I can vouch for that.