HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Beware Mama Grizzlies

Mama Grizzlies are storming the political landscape. As any hunter or hiker knows, an ursine grizzly will kill to protect her young, even if the danger she perceives is not real. And even if she risks falling within the sights of somebody’s rifle. Grizzlies are not smart as much as ferocious.

The political Mama Grizzly is just as ferocious, just as ignorant; but since the political breed comes cloaked in a sexy persona, flashing a mega-watt smile, voters often overlook the ferocity, along with the ignorance, the specious reasoning, and the bizarrely illogic mindset.

But voters embrace Mama Grizzlies at their peril. These successors to the mid 19th-century Know-Nothings can tear through the government just as effectively as the ursine subtype can tear through the woods. The result in both cases is destruction.

Today Mama Grizzlies have “Obamacare” in their sight, perceiving it as a danger to their Common Joe (Jane) American Way of Life. The danger of health reform, however, is not real. Indeed, the American Way of Life they evoke is more mythic than real. But Mama Grizzlies are threatening the first major health reform since 1965 and Medicare.

Unless the country wants to return to a bleaker health care era, we should defeat the Grizzlies. Lead bullets won’t deter these political beasts (although the Mama Grizzlies scorn gun control, yearning for a return to a gun-toting Wild West). Maybe intellectual salvos will work: we can lob facts at them.

Salvo One: Most of the 43 (maybe now 44) million people without health insurance cannot afford to buy insurance on the private market. A cruel lie is circulating through the right-wing media: the bloviators claim that a large swathe of the uninsured could buy insurance if they wanted to. Baloney! Imagine a family of four, with a household income of $60,000. After paying for taxes, housing, food, and transportation, they would be hard-pressed to pay $7,000 to $8,000 in premiums, assuming nobody was very sick. (With a very sick family member, insurers might deny coverage.) Among the Grizzly supporters, let those who happily chose to have no insurance step forth; let them proclaim the benefits of the status quo. Under health reform (the dreaded Obamacare), most of those 43 million Americans will be covered.

Salvo Two: Many private insurers have focused more on profits, not health care for enrollees. After all, profits are their mandate. Shareholders expect it. So policies have routinely “just said no,” with exemptions for pre-existing conditions, caps on coverage, and deductibles as high as $5,000. This free market in health insurance has led many Americans directly to Chapter 11. Yet the Grizzlies laud this almost-illusory coverage: good until you need to rely on it. Indeed, Obamacare threatens to bar some of those “just say no” economies.

Salvo Three: Our disjointed system has given us high costs and low performance. The Grizzlies fearing government oversight should study the statistics in a recent issue of Health Affairs (“What Changes In Survival Rates Tell Us About US Health Care” by Peter A. Muennig and Sherry A. Glied, /cgi/content/abstract/hlthaff.2010.0073).

The researchers compared the United States with 12 nations that have universal health insurance. (The United States alone in the group doesn’t.) From 1975 to 2005, our health care spending more than doubled. But our life expectancy fell. For example, Americans lived 5.7 fewer “perfect health care years” than the Japanese. The researchers ruled out the usual suspects: smoking, obesity, traffic fatalities and homicides. Instead, they pointed to our system: too many people without insurance, a skewed emphasis on specialty care, unregulated fee-for-service reimbursement. Health reform promises to redress that imbalance.

With their cute outfits and cheerful banter, the political Grizzles seem almost cuddly. But like the real Grizzlies, they are dangerous. Beware.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2010

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