Like many of my fellow Kansans, the other night I answered the call for a “tele-town hall” conducted by Sen. Sam Brownback. After a while, I hung up, disgusted with the tone of the callers I heard, calling President Obama “the Messiah” and denigrating him personally, and condemning health reform as “socialist” and worse. I had hoped to hear reasonable discussion but ended up leaving the call instead.
Since then, opponents of health reform have been out in full force — specifically in opposition to HR 3200, the bill that has now passed the House that would ensure reforms to the system of private health insurance where most nonelderly Americans get their coverage. Well-funded interest groups (claiming to be spontaneous, grassroots protesters but often orchestrated by the insurance and drug industries) are taking advantage of the fears, insecurities, and anger of some groups of Americans, arming them with lies and misinformation and urging them to show up at their (Democratic) representatives’ town hall meetings to disrupt them and prevent any discussion, pro or con, about health care.
I have waited for my elected representatives — especially the Republicans — to help put an end to the disruptions of democracy in action. Let me be clear: I believe people have the right, even the obligation, to protest and dissent. I have done plenty of both. But I do not believe that showing up at town hall meetings with the sole purpose of shouting down anyone who disagrees is a productive way to exercise freedom of speech.
Some Republican leaders (not our senators) have said that they have nothing to do with what is going on. But that is not enough. By their silence, our members of Congress are giving their implicit support for scare-and-delay tactics.
The unfortunate result is that this outpouring of anger, fueled by fear and misinformation, is stopping the conversation about changing a health care system whose status quo is not acceptable. We’ve read the statistics; I won’t review them here. After a while, we can become numb to the litany of suffering, but it is real.
Just ask Wendell Potter, former communications director for CIGNA, the fifth-largest U.S. private insurer. He admits to the active role he played for years in denying claims of premium-paying customers and thwarting efforts to expose these practices. After attending an open-air health fair in Wise, Va., at which he saw hundreds of uninsured folks show up for free routine medical care — some from several states away — he knew that he could no longer participate in such a system. He is now speaking out, to atone for his past and help move the country forward.
And now we come back to the images of Democratic members of Congress being shouted down at public meetings. Online, documents are circulating that characterize various legislative proposals, such as HR 3200, in ways that are inflammatory (invoking euthanasia and public funding of abortion) and untrue.
Fortunately, respected health services researchers, such as Linda Bergthold, have looked carefully at the text of HR 3200 and refuted the allegations, one by one. I keep listening for alternative solutions from Republicans, but so far all I hear is noisy protest, cynical complicity with extremists or stony silence.
Many economists agree that the current system is not sustainable. Some who object to the current reforms cite the trillion-dollar price tag as the basis for their objections. Cost is a legitimate concern. But we need both sides to have a conversation about how to get where we need to be, instead of stifling debate, saying no, and hoping for a political loss for the leader of the other party. The human toll of this outcome seems not to enter the conversation.
It seems the whole purpose of these summertime protests is to defeat health reform, and that is not acceptable. I cannot understand how leaders who claim to be ethical can support a system that allows, even rewards, insurance companies to profit from human suffering. There is a place for free-market economics, but not in health care.
I hope that in his last months in the Senate, Sen. Brownback, free of the need to be reelected, will depart from the ideological script and do what is right for our country. Our delegation can — and should — speak out in favor of civic (and civil) discourse. Regardless of one’s views on the reforms being proposed, what is happening now is not debate, and it is not democratic. We Kansans should not allow the debate to be shut down. If we won’t talk to each other, how can we get anything done?