John Colson: Hit and Run | AspenTimes.com

John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly

Fear and self-interest, mixed in with a plentiful larding of ignorance.

That’s what’s driving the current health-care-reform debate, and there’s no mistaking it.

As I watch the Republican standard-bearers and their willing co-conspirators, the blue-dog Democrats of Dixie and beyond, I am filled with a grim determination to scream at the top of my lungs, “Get your damned fear-mongering hands off my health-care reform!”

As has been noted by commentators of various persuasions, this is not the first time this debate has been hung up by the venal mouthings of people who don’t know what’s good for themselves or the rest of us.

From what I’ve heard, the first time the U.S. as a nation began thinking it was time for a universal health-care program was nearly a century ago, around the time of World War I, shortly after doctors and hospitals started practicing what we call “modern medicine,” meaning costly treatment of patients using fancy new techniques that the patients rarely understand.

As the cost of health care outstripped the increase in wages among the working classes, according to some researchers, talk turned to government-run programs that would ensure that everyone, not just the better-off, would have access to decent care.

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But the idea was instantly killed off by naysayers who, for reasons not exactly clear, warned that a nationalized health system was part of a plot by Kaiser Wilhelm II to take over America. This was the first use of fear-mongering to keep health care in the control of private corporations, and the American public was suckered into believing this tripe.

What arose from that fertile ground, according to the literature, was the Blue Cross insurance system, based on a payment network reportedly created out of whole cloth at a hospital in Dallas and aimed at helping working-class folk stay on top of their medical bills.

It wasn’t long before the nation’s insurance industry, which initially viewed health care as unworthy of their attentions, realized there was money to be made and private insurance became the norm. By the mid-1940s, health insurance was tied to people’s jobs as a way of attracting good employees despite wage freezes imposed during World War II.

In the late 1940s, alarmed at a rise in medical costs that was leaving poorer people and the unemployed in the dust, President Harry Truman brought up the idea of a national health-care program. But the American Medical Association, which had been active in foiling national health care in the 1920s, again lined up against the plan. This time, the favored bugaboo was communism – a national health insurance program would inevitably bring the Red Army onto Main Street, America.

Again, fear was the tool that killed the idea, with the aid of a clueless electorate.

The debate languished until the late 1980s, when rising health care costs along with growth in the numbers of uninsured again brought the idea to the fore.

By the time of the Clinton “reform” plan, in the early 1990s, the AMA and the insurance lobby had once again managed to convince everybody that any move toward a “single payer” health care system [essentially Medicare for all] was tantamount to socialism. This, at a time when social researchers were telling anyone who would listen that the U.S. was paying more for its health-care system than any other industrialized nation on earth, but getting poorer care.

And so we come to the present debate, which again is tinged with fear, as the insurance lobbyists and their pet congressional puppets strive once more to convince us that our health-care system is just fine the way it is, and that a single-payer system will bring everything from rationing to “death panels” and other stupid claims.

The fact is, our health care is rationed already. If you’ve got money, you’re entitled. If you don’t, or if your employer can’t afford the insurance, you are not entitled, so just go ahead and get sick or die.

And we’re still paying more than twice as much for health care as other “first world” nations on a per-capita basis, but by such measurements as lifespan or cancer statistics we’re in much poorer health than the others.

Interestingly enough, during three out of four of our explorations of health care, we’ve been at war, if you consider the current “War on Terror” as being at all comparable to the two World Wars. We’re certainly spending enough money on it to make it so.

What that should tell us about the debate, I’m not sure. But it’s something worth thinking about the next time you hear some blowhard trying to whip you into a fearful frenzy on the topic.

jcolson@aspentimes.com