The Republican Health “Alternative”: Empowering Ourselves to Death

The Republican Health "Alternative": Empowering Ourselves to Death

As Democratic Congress members fumble for the mythical health reform solution that will satisfy everyone and their insurance agent, many have accused Republicans of lacking a plan of their own.

They are mistaken. Hidden in the cobwebby depths of the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions lies the conservative answer to health care. It’s a plan that would cost about $940 billion less than the House Democrats’ bill, and cut deficit spending by tens of billions over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office – all while keeping large employers and insurance moguls happy as clams on subsidized Prozac.

The downside? It would leave more than 52 million nonelderly Americans uninsured. That’s an improvement of roughly zero percent.

The legislation, ambitiously dubbed “The Empowering Patients First Act,” was introduced by Rep. Tom Price, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, in July. It has lately been resurrected as the paragon of reform done right by right-wing columnists, as well as conservative bastions such as the Heritage Foundation and the Christian Coalition.

The Empowering Patients bill would grant tax credits to people purchasing insurance – not much use to unemployed and low-income Americans. It would allow health insurance companies to sell policies across state lines, knocking off state oversight of insurers.

The legislation would not require that employers offer coverage, nor would it impose regulations preventing insurance companies from cherry picking healthy clients.

It would require that no federal funds be used to pay for abortions unless “the pregnancy endangers a women’s life or was the result of forcible rape.”

And, to help fund the minimal expense of the bill, it would instate “medical liability reforms” that would force down the cost of compensation for malpractice lawsuits and make it harder for patients to sue for injuries incurred during treatment.

Feeling empowered yet?

“[The bill] would be compatible with Americans’ core values and enhance – not reduce – the role of personal responsibility,” insisted a Heritage Foundation memo. “It would foster key principles that are at the foundation of the American political tradition.”

In a way, Heritage has a point. It’s true that, traditionally, this country has left many of its people helpless in the face of illness, disability and chronic conditions. It’s true that our government has, thus far, largely thrust health care into the realm of “personal responsibility,” letting 45,000 Americans die each year simply because they lack insurance.

But are those really America’s core values? Whatever happened to caring for the wretched refuse of our teeming shores? More importantly, what about the fact that, according to multiple polls, a majority of Americans support a universal, Medicare-for-all health system?

A late December article in the New England Journal of Medicine argued that expanding health coverage is absolutely in line with “American values”:

Our discussion about health care reform is enriched … when we recognize that a value such as “liberty,” though it surely includes the freedom to choose a physician – and the freedom for physicians to choose their practice setting and patients – also encompasses more than that. Under our current system, a young entrepreneur with a brilliant idea for a new business, a creative vision that can create jobs and wealth, can’t necessarily follow that vision: if this person has a job at a large firm that provides good health insurance and has a child or a spouse with a chronic illness, the aspiring entrepreneur’s freedom to pursue his or her dream is severely limited by the “job lock” imposed by our current patchwork of health insurance.

Even the Declaration of Independence would agree: Liberty is not much good without its sidekicks, “life” and the “pursuit of happiness” – both of which are tough to achieve if you’re sick or dead.

The Empowering Patients First Act – and the whole concept of a conservative “alternative” to health reform – is a philosophical farce. In order to foster real empowerment, we must make health care coverage easily accessible, so Americans can get busy doing other things with their lives – things that are more creative, more fun and more useful to society than shopping for unaffordable health care.

Instead of insisting that Republicans have no “alternate plan,” Democratic Congress members and President Obama need to emphasize the very real difference in priorities at stake. As with health care itself, health reform should not be sold as a product; it should be explained as a basic right – even an “American value.”

A basic right cannot be abandoned because of convoluted political calculations, or because Congressional morale is down, or because cable news viewers have had enough of it for one season and would rather be checking out the situation on MTV’s “Jersey Shore.”

President Obama and Congressional Democrats must not apologize for continuing their push for reform.

Instead, keeping in mind the terrifying “alternative vision” that conservatives have in store, Democrats must stress the value of insuring as many Americans as possible, granting them the liberty to lead healthy, productive lives.

This means passing a clean reconciliation bill that retains the core elements of reform, including a public option, Medicaid expansion and tough insurance market regulations.

It also means keeping the goal of a single-payer system – the true “empowerment plan” – in the public consciousness.

If we let conservatives usurp the rhetoric of liberty, freedom, empowerment and responsibility, we risk ending up “liberated” from our health insurance (and our libraries, schools, roads, post offices and scenic, side-of-the-road historic monuments).

Patients: empower yourselves! Push this country toward the kind of health care that frees you to get the treatment you need, regardless of how much is in your bank account.