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The Great Broccoli War of 2012

This is probably a horrible post. This type of topic does not generally lead to constructive dialogue; it leads to verbal Molotov cocktails. Most people will either respond “No duh” or “No way.” It’s high risk/low reward. Nevertheless (as he takes a first, cautious step into the minefield) the current healthcare debate both fascinates and infuriates me. I believe it is the seminal issue of our generation, as Civil Rights, Roe v. Wade, and the various constitutional amendments were in their generations. But this feels bigger.

Why bigger? Because it affects absolutely everyone in fundamental ways: Will I be able to see my doctor? Will my employer drop my coverage? Will there be anything left for my care when I am elderly?

It says something about us as a country: Will we continue to ration health care according to income and profession? Will we allow 17 percent of our people – 50 million men, women, and children — to go without any health insurance? Are we comfortable being the only industrialized country on the planet to not offer its people universal healthcare? (By the way, I had to look this up. Health care — 2 words — is what a patient receives. Healthcare — 1 word — is the system that provides it.)

What infuriates me is the demagoguing and demonizing, the fear tactics and distortions, the mistrust and the xenophobia.

We used to be able to learn from people of other countries and cultures. Now, so many have such a revulsion and contempt for anything that is not covered in the Stars and Stripes. “American Exceptionalism!” is their mantra. It seems vitally important to some that America is fully recognized as #1 in every damn thing there is. Any voice of dissension is viewed as an unloyal Patriot. (Unless, of course, you are criticizing the President of the United States. That’s just being a “Good Goddamn American.”) To me, “American Exceptionalism” is a ridiculous and useless concept. If you are truly exceptional, it’s just pathetic to go around constantly demanding that everybody else recognize it; and if you aren’t truly exceptional, then you just look sad strutting around and acting like you are.

Why is it seen as weakness to admit that our nation is very good at many things, but there are other areas in which we need to improve and learn from others? That’s what we teach our kids to do, isn’t it? Why can’t we do that as a nation?

For instance, Germany has had universal healthcare since the 1800s. You read that right. Last year, they experienced a $5.2 billion (€ 4 bil.) surplus. Their system is based on private insurance and medical provider companies (for profit and non), and funded by a complicated system of premiums based on income. Rich people pay more, just like income tax. It mandates that everybody buy health insurance. You get a list of more than 140 plans to choose from. If you can’t afford insurance, the country pays for it. It was created by one the country’s most ultra-conservative politicians, Otto von Bismarck, in 1883. Today, it enjoys wide support from both liberals and conservatives. There are issues regarding the quality of health care given to the very poor versus the very rich who can afford the very best, but, overall, it’s not a political issue. To take on something so popular and noncontroversial would be electoral suicide.

It is based on an S-word, but it’s not Socialism. It’s Solidarity. Everybody is in the pool and connected to the community. The value is that everybody in a society has a right to access health care, and a society has responsibilities for each of its members.

Not Herr Zoeller

Germans are confused over the debate here. “What I cannot understand is that you make the question of health insurance an ideological question,” said Wolfgang Zoeller, a Bavarian politician who has spent the last 22 years in the German parliament or Bundestag.

“For me the question of a national health insurance is a humane question. I would like that every person, regardless of his or her age, income, preconditions, or financial possibilities, be helped if they are sick.”

Obviously, Herr Zoeller just doesn’t understand “freedom.” He doesn’t understand how great it is to have your employer determine what doctor you are allowed to see — you know, the American Way.

The Germans are even more confused because the United States is viewed as a much more religious society than Germany, where people may be a member of a church, but hardly ever go. They know that most religions teach people to “love their neighbors” as a central part of what spiritual life is about. When this principle has such a central religious function – and the United States is so religious – why, they wonder, do we allow so many of our tax dollars to go toward war, while refusing to contribute a bit to support our own fellow citizens’ access to the healthcare system?

I’m also mad at broccoli. I’m mad that the Supreme Court is picking up on Right Wing political talking points. You’ll have to take my word for it, but I’d be just as mad if liberal justices were doing the same.

Here’s the deal with broccoli:

1) The Constitution allows Congress to regulate Interstate Commerce. Health insurance is not only a product, it’s also a currency. You buy health care with it. Try doing that with broccoli.

2) If you claim that you don’t want to purchase broccoli, and then go out and consume 45 billions dollars of it and stick us with the bill, I’m probably going to insist (mandate) that you buy your own damn broccoli.

3) Lastly, I take high blood pressure medication. If I change jobs and leave the state, I have a concern that my prescription will no longer be covered, as a preexisting condition. It makes me less likely to take that new job. That affects interstate commerce and the economy. Broccoli will never keep me from taking another job.

You know why Germany has that $5.2 billion surplus? Part of it is because the country strictly regulates prices. Their healthcare companies are not among the most profitable companies in the history of the planet like ours are. (See McKesson, Cardinal Health, United Health, Pfizer.) But it’s mainly because their people don’t need as much care because they are healthy… because they have full access to health care… because they have health care coverage.

I know too many of the working poor — hard-working folks who have a job — who make too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford adequate health care. They have to choose between paying a bill and seeing a doctor. They have to choose between getting a prescription filled and putting food on the table. Their health suffers, as a result. The nation’s health care costs rise, as a result. Unlike Germany, America’s overriding value is that one’s access to health care is determined by one’s wealth and profession. American exceptionalism, indeed.

My friends and family on the Right are deeply concerned about things like Death Panels, rationing of care, the survivability of Medicare, and the suspicion that Obama secretly wants to “just let old people die.”

Some of those fears may have basis, but many are just the boogeyman. Obamacare is not a perfect silver bullet. But it’s also not the end of civilization as we know it. It was created by the ultra-Conservative Heritage Foundation as a response to the single-payer Hillary-care system in the 90s. That’s why Romney adopted it. Now it is radiation to the Right because it is now backed by the Left. The fact is, our current healthcare system has as much as $1.7 trillion dollars of waste EACH YEAR! (From inefficient care, unneeded hospital re-admissions, administrative complexity, pricing failures, and more.) It is estimated that by 2037, health insurance premiums will be more than the average family’s income. A Johns Hopkins study estimates that as many as 17, 000 children have died because of lack of insurance or under insurance in the past two decades. Talk about a body count. This is more than a political hot potato. It is a moral tragedy.

So, Washington has reinforced. The battle lines have been drawn. The enemies have been defined. There will be no surrender, no capitulation, no negotiation. War is the only answer. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!

Unfortunately, it’s an old war that has already been settled in the rest of the industrialized world. Like those old Japanese soldiers still fighting World War II from caves on Pacific islands twenty years later, we are the only ones left fighting this battle. The rest of the world has been content to move on, if only we had the wisdom to listen and learn… and not fear.


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