Politics Science

Public Healthcare debate revisited

As you might imagine, since my last post on the topic, I’ve been reading everything I can to stay on top of the public healthcare debate. The attacks on the NHS from right-wing “commentators” seem to have decreased in frequency, but when I do come across them, their tone of fear-mongering inaccuracy remains.

Earlier this week, I read a piece by Johann Hari, in the Independent, which I feel I should pass on to as many people as possible. (The wits among you might point out that this blog is far from an appropriate channel for that!). I’ve Twittered about it already, but want to link to it here as well and offer up a few selected quotes.

In my opinion, Hari is a pretty fearless writer. He constantly offers up pieces that challenge comfortable thinking and the status quo. While I don’t always agree with everything he says (which, to be honest, would be pretty unfulfilling in any case), but in this case, we’re definitely on the same wavelength.

You have to admire the audacity of the right. Here’s what’s actually happening. The US is the only major industrialised country that does not provide regular healthcare to all its citizens. Instead, they are required to provide for themselves – and 50 million people can’t afford the insurance. As a result, 18,000 US citizens die every year needlessly, because they can’t access the care they require. That’s equivalent to six 9/11s, every year, year on year. Yet the Republicans have accused the Democrats who are trying to stop all this death by extending healthcare of being “killers” – and they have successfully managed to put them on the defensive.

A few months ago, a recent board member for several private health corporations called Betsy McCaughey reportedly noticed a clause in the proposed healthcare legislation that would pay for old people to see a doctor and write a living will. They could stipulate when (if at all) they would like care to be withdrawn. It’s totally voluntary. Many people want it: I know I wouldn’t want to be kept alive for a few extra months if I was only going to be in agony and unable to speak. But McCaughey started the rumour that this was a form of euthanasia, where old people would be forced to agree to death. This was then stretched to include the disabled, like Palin’s youngest child, who she claimed would have to “justify” his existence. It was flatly untrue – but the right had their talking-point, Palin declared the non-existent proposals “downright evil”, and they were off.

It’s been amazingly successful. Now, every conversation about healthcare has to begin with a Democrat explaining at great length that, no, they are not in favour of killing the elderly – while Republicans get away with defending a status quo that kills 18,000 people a year. The hypocrisy was startling: when Sarah Palin was Governor of Alaska, she encouraged citizens there to take out living wills. Almost all the Republicans leading the charge against “death panels” have voted for living wills in the past. But the lie has done its work: a confetti of distractions has been thrown up, and support is leaking away from the plan that would save lives.

These increasingly frenzied claims have become so detached from reality that they often seem like black comedy. The right-wing magazine US Investors’ Daily claimed that if Stephen Hawking had been British, he would have been allowed to die at birth by its “socialist” healthcare system. Hawking responded with a polite cough that he is British, and “I wouldn’t be here without the NHS”.

This recent focus on public healthcare – in the US and Europe – has got under my skin in a way that only church-state separation can surpass. And I don’t think it’s possible to miss the similarity of tone in both battles. In each, ideology is waved around in the face of reason, science and truth. Unfortunately, right now reason, science and truth are on the defensive and having to do all the work. Public healthcare opponents and the religious right waste no time in making grand claims about their own moral stances and use extreme examples with fear-based content to get their messages across.

In any democratic society, there will be a spectrum of public opinion about the issues of the day. Political opponents have every right to highlight where they believe “the other side” is wrong. But whipping up a frenzy of fear-based madness is not an ethical way to achieve your aims.

I don’t want to impose my vision of what public healthcare should be like on the US. I don’t think the majority of people here want to. Commentators here (and elsewhere in Europe) are merely reacting to the misinformation pedaled by the right, pointing out the inaccuracies and  the biblical plank in the eye of their detractors, while removing the splinter from their own.

Johann Hari’s complete article can be read here.

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