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Riding the Health Care Reform Roller Coaster Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Riding the Health Care Roller Coaster Can Be Hazardous to Your Health


by Karen Metcalf

This last week has probably been the craziest one yet for those of us working on national health care reform.  On Monday I heard that the House and Senate were very close to resolving the differences between the two different versions of legislation that they had passed.  Hooray! 

Then came Tuesday's election in Massachusetts, and the wisdom out of D.C. was that significant health care reform was probably dead.  Nausea! Groan! 

My Wednesday and Thursday were taken up with conference calls of various pro-reform groups that had pulled together a common strategy:  visits to Congressional offices on Friday and Saturday, and a national call-in day on Monday.  Yes! We're all pulling together. 

Then Thursday Speaker Pelosi announced that she didn't have the votes among members of the House to pass the Senate bill.  Ooof—health care reform is not just dead, but the coffin is already buried six feet under.  Back to the antacid! 

The weekend was relatively quiet, except for the outbursts and venting in my own home over the apparent inability of the folks in D.C. to find a way to finish the process that they started.  How do I get my blood pressure down? 

Now here it is Monday, and the process begins again:  “Call Congress NOW or we lose everything!”  “Reconciliation is alive and well!”  “We'll be moving on to jobs.”  “There's a new time line that will salvage comprehensive reform this year.”  Even the “insiders” seem very uncertain about what is likely to happen next.

Last Friday I wrote the following:

“Today, those of us who have been fighting, locally and nationally, for serious health care reform are angry and frustrated. I'm thinking about all the people whose stories I've heard since I began my fight here in the Quad Cities for health care justice – people who are scared and desperate, or who have lost loved ones because they can't get good, affordable health care in “the richest nation in the world.”  It's a moral outrage that I feel in the core of my being, and I know many of you have the same feeling.  How long must people wait?  And how much worse will it get for all of us if we don't pass something significant this year?”

Although most of the time I feel this intense outrage about this issue, I tell myself that it's usually  somewhat below the surface, which allows me to operate in a reasonably controlled and rational way.  But this highly emotional last week, with all its ups and downs, has been unusually stressful.

Why am I sharing these feelings with (for the most part) unknown strangers?  I think my primary reason is that everything I'm hearing, whether from people who have invested a great deal of time and energy in health care reform or from those who just care about public issues, is that we're all angry, we're all frustrated, we're all very uncertain about what will happen today, tomorrow, or next week.  I think we all feel blind-sided by what happened in Massachusetts last week and then by all the gloomy prognostications that the fight for meaningful health care reform is over.  My inner voice tells me that we need a collective venting of our frustration, so overall it's probably a positive shared experience.

But what I'm hearing from fellow progressives at the moment also raises two concerns for me.  First, I hope we don't turn on each other and start finger-pointing.  However the fight turns out this year (and from what I'm hearing today I feel a bit more optimistic than I did over the weekend), all of  us who identify ourselves as “progressives” must continue to remember that, by its very definition, that label says we—all of us–look forward to a better society that we can help craft. 

Right now I see our anger and frustration starting to divide us, with this progressive group or individual blaming certain other groups for the current confusion about how to move forward.  But genuine differences of opinion about strategy and tactics don't mean that we disagree about the need for comprehensive health care reform that will finally recognize that quality, affordable health care for all is an American right, just as it is in most other industrialized countries.

Second, I hear from others that they are too upset to continue the fight;  they've done their bit, as have so many others, and it appears to have had no effect on the powers-that-be, so there's no point in continuing to try.  While I respect this point of view, I hope it doesn't become wide-spread.  I don't want to sound like some kind of naïve optimist, but I do think we must continue the fight for health care reform, whatever happens in Washington this year.  If we achieve a comprehensive package, then we breathe new energy into our progressive agenda. 

I think Paul Krugman got it about right in his book, The Conscience of a Liberal:

Universal health care could, in short, be to a new New Deal what Social Security was to the original—both a crucially important program in its own right, and a reaffirmation of the principle that we are our brothers' keepers.  Getting universal care should be the key domestic priority for modern liberals.  Once they succeed there, they can turn to the broader, more difficult task of reining in American inequality (p. 243).

If, however, the forces of self-interest, cynicism, and $$ do prevail in D.C. in 2010, then next year there will be a large group of informed and trained activists turning their attention to some of the state legislatures.  Washington can't wave a magic wand and make health care injustices disappear, and I don't think the progressive community will let them do so.

I recommend the recent opinion piece from Froma Harrop, Pass Universal Coverage Now, Fix It Later as a starting point to get us thinking about how, if necessary, to enact health care reform at the state level.

A
native of St. Louis and a graduate of Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Karen Metcalf has been working on health care reform since 2003,
when she learned that an estimated 18,000 people die every year in this
country because they lack health insurance.  Although her background is
non-medical, she is married to a pediatrician who trained in Britain
and Canada and practiced in Canada for many years before they moved to
the Quad Cities in 1994.  Since their move, they have been studying,
discussing, and writing about the American health care “system,”
drawing upon their experience in all three countries where they have lived.


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