PHYSICIANS, HEAL THYSELVES: Poor Karl Marx, the alleged father of global socialism. He must be spinning so hard in his grave that some enterprising capitalist could use his dusty bones as a rototiller. The term “socialism” has come under such abuse recently that had Marx trademarked the word-as the Scientologists have patented their path to enlightenment-Karl’s heirs could no doubt sue a lot of people. I can sort of understand how the Obama-nators got their collective underwear in a knot because the prez decided to intrude upon their children’s first day of school with a few inspirational remarks. But to denounce this as “socialist” reflects the extent to which the American education system has produced a nation of political illiterates.
On a normal day, the pissed-off wacko fringe now defining the Republican Party suffers no shortage of imagination. Say what you will about attacking Obama’s right to occupy the Oval Office by impugning the integrity of his birth certificate; it is nothing if not creative. Based on this, I would have expected a more rhetorically inventive assault on the healthcare reform package now coming out of Washington. But the boogeyman of socialism? Sure, it’s charmingly retro, in that post-ironic nihilistic-hipster-poseur sort of way. But didn’t the Berlin Wall collapse about 20 years ago? Didn’t the Evil Empire declare Chapter 11? Can’t they do better than that?
Critics of healthcare reform may be recklessly imprecise when it comes to political theory, but they obviously have studied their history. Every time the subject of national healthcare reform has been broached in the past 60 years, critics scream “socialized medicine” and the prospect of universal healthcare goes away. It works, so why mess with success?
At the end of World War II, California’s governor, Earl Warren-a card-carrying Republican-decided it would be nice to offer the returning GIs some form of universal healthcare. He suggested a 3-percent tax -to be exacted from worker and employer alike- to pay the cost of this outlandish new healthcare system. Thanks to an effective, if hysterical, campaign launched by big business, big labor, and the medical establishment, Warren’s attempt at socialized medicine was strangled in the cradle. It would take the John Birch Society until the early 1960s to expose Warren-then serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court-as the Pinko-Commie-Rat-Basturd he, along with former president Dwight Eisenhower, really was.
A few years after Warren tried and failed, Harry S. Truman-the Democrat who officially launched the Cold War to contain communism anywhere, anytime, and at any cost-took up the issue of universal health insurance. “Give ’em hell,” Harry liked to say. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” But where healthcare was concerned, Harry was forced to flee with his hot pads blazing. It was the usual suspects whipping up the usual hysteria about “socialized medicine.” Truman, who authorized dropping the atomic bomb on civilian populations, would argue, “I do not understand a mind which sees a gracious beneficence in spending money to slay and maim human beings in almost unimaginable numbers and deprecates the expenditure of a smaller sum to patch up the ills of mankind.” It was nice line-if a bit ornate-but got him nowhere.
Critics of healthcare reform were caught napping in the mid 1960s when Lyndon B. Johnson, that twisted Machiavellian genius, managed to win approval for Medicare and Medicaid. But these programs granted healthcare for poor people and old folks, neither of whom was especially attractive to private insurance providers. Today, these two socialistic programs offer care for about 70 million Americans who would otherwise find themselves uninsured or drastically underinsured. In 1971, Richard Nixon, a Republican who made his political bones as a ruthless Red Baiter, proposed universal health legislation, noting at the time that 25 million Americans were tragically uninsured. (Since then, the official estimate has increased to 46 million; unofficial estimates tag it at 60 million. Another 25 million are believed to be underinsured.) Among other things, Nixon wanted to stop insurance companies from cutting people off once they got sick or looked like they might. Given Nixon’s impeccable credentials as an anti-commie street fighter, the rhetoric about socialized medicine was not quite as intense. But just enough to kill the bill. When Hillary and Bill Clinton tried to pass their version of healthcare reform, the Cold War had recently ended, and socialism wasn’t quite so frightening. Trying out a new approach, the medical and insurance lobbies launched a folksy advertising blitz that successfully scared the hell out of senior citizens.
Which brings us to today. It’s likely that any healthcare reform bill will suffer from unintended consequences. But the status quo is hardly working. Just here in the two congressional districts that encompass Santa Barbara County, there are 212,000 uninsured people. In these two districts-represented by the yin and yang of Lois Capps and Elton Gallegly-1,350 families have been forced to declare bankruptcy because of medical expenses. In California, 7.7 million lack any insurance, and most of these, according to the L.A. Times, are working. Insurance cost borne by employers has risen by 120 percent in the past 10 years, and the cost of employee-borne deductibles has risen by 400 percent. I know some people with insurance worry that they will be adversely affected by any insurance reform. But we already pay higher insurance rates to cover the costs associated with treating the uninsured. One recent study estimated the average policy holder pays $1,100 a year in higher premiums because of this.
If Congress fails to pass meaningful healthcare reform, it can only be attributed to mass stupidity, not to mention a lobbying juggernaut that spends $1.4 million a day bending Congress’s ear. Reading over the fine print of my insurance policy, I discovered that stupidity qualifies as a pre-existing condition, for which no coverage is available. Likewise, I found that cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face is entirely an elective procedure, like a nose job in reverse. All costs are out of pocket. You do the math. And if you still think the bill is being rushed through, why don’t you dig up the remains of Earl Warren and ask that dead socialist what he thinks.