We can’t let misinformation destroy health care reform

Newton B. Jones, International President

THROUGHOUT AUGUST, support for President Obama’s health care plan began to fade slowly as criticism of the plan grew. That fading support is a disturbing development, because the plan many citizens oppose is a fiction, created by anti-reform groups.

A recent NBC News survey uncovered this perverse trend. When shown key components of Obama’s reform plan and asked whether they would support such a plan, a majority of Americans said they would.

But when asked questions about what they believe is in his plan, majorities said it would provide free health care to illegal aliens, would use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and would result in a government takeover of the health care system. Forty-five percent believe the plan allows government officials to decide when to stop providing medical care to the elderly.

None of these claims is true, according to numerous independent, nonpartisan fact-checkers who have studied the plan extensively. These features are not in the plan now and have never been in the plan.

These myths have been spread by a variety of anti-reform individuals and groups, often passed along by anonymous e-mails that move from computer to computer like a virus. The authors know that few people will read the 1,000-page health care bill, or the many variations that the House and Senate will create before it finally passes, so they distort what is in it — or resort to lying.

Independent analysts, not connected with either political party and not in the employ of insurance or drug companies, confirm that these features simply aren’t in the bill.

But that hasn’t stopped prominent public figures such as Sarah Palin from using the bill for their own ends. In interviews and on her Facebook page she has claimed that seniors and the disabled (like her Downs syndrome child) “will have to stand in front of Obama’s death panel so his bureaucrats can decide... whether they are worthy of health care.”

As The St. Petersburg Times stated when it examined her claim, “It’s not clear where Palin, the former Republican governor of Alaska, came up with this idea.” Nothing anywhere in any version of the bill or any of its amendments requires any panel to review any individual’s claim to care.

Like other misinformers, she may be misunderstanding or misinterpreting a provision in the bill that allows Medicare to pay for end-of-life counseling — that is, counseling about wills, powers of attorney, living wills, and pain management. These voluntary counseling sessions give patients the ability to make their own decisions on vital issues that confront everyone facing that final door, rather than allowing others to make those decisions for them.

Yet despite the fact that this claim has been repudiated repeatedly in major media, the phrase “death panels” continues to crop up on television and in talk radio.

So does the term “socialized medicine.” The Obama plan is nothing like socialized medicine, in which the government provides all health care. It does not change health care delivery; it only changes how payments are made. And under his plan, most payments will continue to come through private insurance companies, as they do now. Yet those who want to stigmatize his proposal continue to use that term.

We have an opportunity to fix a faulty system.

Actually, the Obama plan is similar to the system used in Switzerland, which requires everyone to buy insurance, doesn’t allow discrimination based on medical history or pre-existing conditions, and gives lower-income citizens help in paying for their policies. Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman pointed out this fact in The New York Times. He also reminded everyone that Switzerland is not socialist; it is the epicenter of capitalism.

The most recent distortion by naysayers is that passing health care reform will gut Medicare. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has been that party’s point man on this issue. It is difficult to believe that the party that opposed Medicare when it was proposed and as recently as the 1990s hoped to “drown it in the bathtub” would now claim to be its champions, but that is politics for you.

Those who continue to spout this kind of nonsense should be ashamed. Their ignorance, lies, and distortions are fueling the anger displayed by some of the people attending health care town hall meetings. Debate is good. Discussion is good. But shouting down everyone who tries to speak and threatening those trying to conduct the meetings will not improve our health care system.

And we must improve on what we have now, because the current system is not working.

What Obama’s health care reform would do

LET ME BE CLEAR: The Obama plan may not be perfect, but it is the only real proposal we have right now, and it accomplishes a great deal.

Here are some key features of the bill, as proposed:

  • It leaves employer-provided health care alone.
  • It doesn’t tax employer-provided benefits.
  • It requires insurance companies to cover “pre-existing” conditions.
  • It requires everyone to have some form of medical insurance and creates a “health care exchange” to help those who have trouble paying for it.
  • The exchange will offer private insurance and a public option.
  • The public option will provide competition for insurance companies, giving them an incentive to keep rates low.
  • It increases efficiency by requiring electronic records that reduce duplication.
  • It researches the most effective treatments.

Some of these features are especially appealing. Increased efficiency and competition from the public option are expected to lower costs. Requiring everyone to have some form of coverage will more equitably distribute the costs of care.

We can afford reform

A RECURRING COMPLAINT from those opposed to reforming health care is that it will cost a lot of money. They are right. But the current system costs a lot of money, as well. And if you think we can’t afford to pay for health care for everyone, think again. We are already paying for it. We are just doing so in an inefficient way.

Under the current system, most Americans pay for their health care primarily through insurance. And nearly all of them get their health care insurance in one of five ways: through their employers, on their own, through Medicare, through Medicaid, or through the Veterans Administration.

But tens of millions are unable to get health care through one of these avenues. Without insurance, they often can’t afford preventive care. They don’t get routine exams or take medications to help manage their conditions, such as blood pressure pills.

And when they get sick, they tend to go to the emergency room, the most expensive and inefficient way of delivering routine care. The bill for those ER visits gets passed on to the rest of us, in the form of higher hospital, lab, and doctor bills, and most important, higher insurance premiums.

This inefficient system is driving costs up rapidly. Health insurance premiums are expected to double over the next 10 years. In contrast, if you get a four percent raise each of those 10 years, your income will go up less than 50 percent. How long before you can no longer afford to pay your premiums?

Without a way to keep costs from rising — to lower them, where possible — the system will continue to grow increasingly inefficient. As more people become unable to afford insurance, their health care costs will shift to those who still have insurance, driving costs higher and higher in an unending spiral.

That spiral is costing us jobs. Americans pay more for health care than workers in any other industrialized country, and that cost is added to everything we manufacture. We blame NAFTA and trade laws for our growing trade deficit, but the health care burden is also a significant factor. American car manufacturers pay far more per car for health care than automakers in Europe or Japan.

And the spiral is raising taxes as well. According to Congressional Budget Office economic projections, rising health care prices are projected to be the major factor in all future federal budget shortfalls. When opponents suggest that health care reform will raise taxes, remind them that ignoring the health care problem will raise taxes, too.

Take action to protect your future

RISING HEALTH CARE costs are threatening our way of life. Hard-working Americans who get health care insurance from their employers should not see their co-pays and deductibles increase three times as fast as their wages. They should not have to take lower raises each year so the company can keep up with rising insurance premiums.

Hard-working Americans should not be denied coverage because they have a pre-existing medical condition, and the decision whether a person gets medical care should be left to the patient’s physicians, not bureaucrats at insurance companies who get bonuses for denying coverage.

Without some fundamental change in the way we pay for medical care, these inequities will remain. President Obama’s plan goes a long way toward eliminating them. It is not perfect, but we can’t wait for perfection. We need improvement now.

The health care systems of other industrialized countries differ significantly, but they all have two things in common: they cover everyone, regardless of age, income, or pre-existing condition; and they provide high-quality care far cheaper than we do in the United States.

Obama’s plan will move us in that direction. I urge you to contact your senators and representatives and let them know you want to seize this opportunity to improve health care.

We may not see another opportunity for a long time.

To learn more about what is actually in the health care plan and how it will help working families, visit these Web sites: