I got to witness Advanced-Stage Townhall-ism on August 11th, when I attended Congressman Adam Schiff's health care panel and forum in the Southern Californian city of Alhambra. Because of high turnout the assembly was relocated to the spacious hillside lawn between the civic center buildings; thankfully, this accommodated the 2500 or so people who showed up. Unfortunately, there were no cordless mikes for the Q & A, so although Schiff's team never faced the criticisms leveled at some other town halls where venue-size was too small to fit everyone who came (thus trampling on their First Amendment rights!), his Q & A required participants to come down to the front of the crowd and yell their question up to the moderator (thus trampling on their First Amendment rights!). Some other devotees of the Anti-Government sect were less paranoid, but had no patience with the staff's failure to find mikes for an outdoor setting that had only been instituted at the last minute.
Crowd at Adam Schiff's Town Hall in California
Supporters and opponents of health reform were all mixed in together, with homemade signs on both perspectives. There were large numbers of posters with slogans from Obama's Organizing for America; their message of "standing together" unappreciated by various stern-faced men defiantly holding a "Pasadena Patriots" banner, a "Don't Tread on Me" flag, and such-like. From the audience response to Congressman Schiff's opening question, the opponents of health reform were matched if not out-numbered by its proponents. (A smaller number were actually undecided.) Dialogue between different sides actually did happen in the crowd, although one side seemed pretty convinced that government as a whole is a consortium of supernatural, un-human demons who stop at nothing to eviscerate democracy and were determined to keep their fingers in their ears against the enemies of democracy (i.e. the Majority, who voted for Obama's promise of health reform at the polls in Nov. 2008, 52.9% to 45.7%.)
One grey-haired couple was convinced that the same federal government which has enabled funding for seniors' health care for the last 44 years was too incompetent or too dangerous to be trusted with funding seniors' health care. The man's sign read: "The Lord will decide how long I live, not the government", and his companion, a woman who sat in a chair and needed a cane, held a sign saying: "The scariest words: I'm here from the government, I'm here to take control of your health."
Senior worried about government-funded health care
When I tried to tell them and others that I'd experienced government-financed health care in Canada, where I lived for almost 30 years, and so had my family and relatives, neighbors, teachers, co-workers, and classmates from kindergarten through university, they were not very interested. (The Christian man rolled his eyes at the mere mention of Canada.) I described how my father had a stroke and for the next five years he received all kinds of medical treatment, two and a half years of which were actually in a chronic care hospital where he lived. I was actually told "that's because he was a senior" and "not everyone can get care in Canada." When I tried to make it clear that No, in Canada everyone gets care because it's universal health care, one of my listeners was sure that the waiting times are really long. I tried to get through to him that for 2 years my father received his own wheelchair, X-rays, CAT-scans, MRIs, medication, antibiotics, an oxygen tank, and even a ventilator as soon as he needed it and for free. In fact, his life was saved over and over again. (Moreover, his life was first saved under the much-maligned British National Health Service. He actually had the stroke in London, and went, over a period of about 6 weeks, from being in a coma to being able to walk, talk, and eat again thanks to them.)
I also affirmed that my 83-year-old godmother, who lives in Montreal, has had all kinds of intensive and sophisticated surgeries and other treatments, without long waits. She happens to be someone who reads medical dictionaries for fun and has studied developments in medicine all her life -- taping, quite possibly, every medical show that PBS has ever run and with all that knowledge was very attentive to the quality of care she received. She praised the great skill of many of the procedures she's had. Not all of them -- the doctors in Canada are just as human as those in the U.S. Sometimes there are malpractice suits and bad bedside manners, just like there are here. (I, for example, went to a hospital in the U.S. and they gave me test resultsthat belonged to somebody else.) However, my eye-witness testimony provoked too much cognitive dissonance to be believed. "I've always heard that people in Canada are unhappy with their health care system!", a man said, shaking his head firmly.
I was also told "the health care system in Canada was much better 15 years ago than it is now." Even if that were true it would not be an argument for privately funded health care, since government insurance and universal access came into effect in Saskatchewan 47 years ago, and the rest of Canada has been insuring all their residents for the last 37 years. However, what did happen in the last couple of decades was that those who never wanted publicly-funded health care at all pressed and pressed until health budgets were cut. This was in evidence in Ontario, where ultra-right-wing premier Mike Harris came into power in 1995 and savagely cut government spending while reducing taxes 30%. I was there at the time and I remember general strikes and protests, increases in homeless people freezing to death, and suicides by people cut off of social assistance. The effect of cutbacks was also evident in the middle of my father's tenure in the Ontario hospital, as the nurse-to-patient ratio worsened, and recreational, occupational, and other therapists had their hours reduced. But my father was in and out of intensive care over and over again, on several occasions getting so much care he practically had his own private nurse. And in all my many conversations with his doctors and specialists, there was certainly never any government limitation placed on the kind or extent of care he could receive. He, and I, -- when I had to speak for him -- were the ones making the decisions.
What's extraordinary is how so many of those 'tea-bagger' types at the Alhambra town hall think only Government could possibly cause them harm or limit their health care. Yet insurance companies don't hold town hall meetings and allow you to shout at them hysterically for 2 hours; they don't hold town hall meetings at all. If you try to set up a meeting at your insurance company, they'll laugh in your face, but I've attended meetings at my Congressperson Diane Watson's office with 5 or 6 others, delivered petitions there, and called up many times. (Her aide has even called me back from D.C.) You can't watch insurance companies' shareholders' meetings on C-SPAN like you can the hearings and sessions of Congress, and the media doesn't condense and report the highlights of your insurer's decision-making process for you.
If your insurance company drops you, they no longer have any interest in you, in fact they don't care whether you live or die. The ACLU doesn't sue your insurance company if they infringe on your rights, because there's no Insured's Bill of Rights. They may refuse you coverage because you have a "pre-existing condition", in other words, because you need care. They can reject doctors' requests for the type of treatment you need, even if the person processing the claim is just a bureaucrat with no medical knowledge. You also can't file a Freedom of Information Act request to get memos from your insurance company's board meetings.
Yet several of the anti-reform protesters at the Alhambra town hall were convinced that the Constitution was being violated. I asked "How?" and was told "the Constitution doesn't say anything about health care!!!" When I mentioned that there's an unalienable right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" the senior who feared government 'takeover' snapped "That's the Preamble!" As if somehow that didn't count, then. (It's actually in The Declaration of Independence, but last time I looked that was a founding document too.) Of course Obama isn't forcing anyone to choose the public option to begin with, so there's nothing to insist on being free from, but even overhauling the whole system and instituting government-funded health insurance would not violate the tea-baggers' constitutional rights.
Nattering Nabobs of Negativity
In 1789, there was no UN to declare health care a fundamental human right. That had to wait till 1946, and the World Health Organization's Constitution, and1948, when Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the UN's commission that gave us the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 25, #1. But the Bill of Rights makes a point of trying to prevent the powerful from playing Simon Says with the Constitution in order to restrict Americans' rights and freedoms. When Fox-loving right-wingers wave the Constitution around, do they only read the first twoAmendments? The Ninth Amendment to the Constitution, part of 'the Bill of Rights', explicitly states: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." In other words, they realized that they may not have listed every right by name.
Moreover, that afore-mentioned Preamble to the Constitution makes sure we understand the Founders' intent. When I've asked Anti-Government zealots what government is for, they tend to focus on the clause "provide for the common defence." But the Preamble also declares that some of the Constitution's purposes are to "establish Justice" and "promote the general Welfare." It's impossible to see any 'Justice' in insurance company execs getting rich by denying young children vital treatments. (http://sickforprofit.com/) And I'm sure stumped as to how 'the general Welfare' is served by millions of people being unable to get needed care, not only because they suffer as a result, but also because their exclusion may hamper society's ability to fight the spread of swine flu, bird flu, AIDS, ebola, SARS, or others yet unknown.
Obama is the first to point out that he isn't proposing a nationalized health care program. But the right-wing wants to make it about that. Obama and his people have to spend all their energy defending criticisms that are not only as made-up as something out of Harry Potter but are completely irrelevant to the proposed reform.
Which proves that I was right all along to worry that the Obama Administration was shooting itself in the foot months ago by refusing to even allow discussion of single-payer health care (a publicly-funded, privately-delivered nationalized system like Canada's). Single-payer advocates were most definitely 'not invited' to the forums earlier this year which were supposed to be for public comment. The forums were stage-managed to reflect only the opinions of entrenched health care powers. Doctors and nurses who've been working for single-payer for years were excluded from public debate in ways the bitter townhallers only dream about, so turned to getting arrested for interrupting congressional meetings and protesting at insurance companies. Even Rep. John Conyers, Jr., the author of the single payer bill HR 676,was very nearly kept out of hearings in D.C.
When a plan has a little of this and a little of that, it's convoluted, and the public can be scared off of it. People end up sounding like bureaucrats when they explain how it will work; it doesn't have the impact of a strong vision. It would have been better to defend a principle rather than a compromise.
Though Obama used to support single-payer before his presidential run, he obviously thought he'd face strong opposition if he tried to advance the idea now. The Democrats are perpetually delusional that if they don't rock the boat, maybe the right-wing won't say mean things about them. At the very least Obama could have made it clear to the rumor-gullible that single-payer is one thing, and a public option is something else.