Have we all flip-flopped on the health-care debate?

Dave Broker

In one of last year’s presidential debates, then-Senator Barack Obama was asked if health care was a privilege, a right, or a responsibility. He promptly answered “a right.” As a liberal, I was glad to see him take that position. My conservative father sitting next to me was disgusted.
One year later, the nation is in the midst of a contentious health-care debate. It hasn’t just been an intellectual discussion on how to manage the country’s health-care resources, but rather the typical back-and-forth of political rhetoric.
I should know. As an employee of a political consulting firm, I am basically a protégé Democratic strategist, and I frequently work on the sort of message development that we’ve seen in the current health-care debate. Yet, once we scratch the surface of this debate, it appears that both liberals and conservatives have flip-flopped in their principles.
There’s no better place to start than with the classic Republican message: “A Washington bureaucrat should not get between you and your doctor.” That message implies two things.
First, it suggests that patients would not have a choice of their doctors if a public option were introduced. That’s nonsense. I have neverheard of a health-care system in which public bureaucrats decide which doctors you can see – including the single-payer system in Canada and the National Health Service – true socialized medicine – in the United Kingdom.
The other implication of the message – which I intend to focus on – is that a bureaucrat can deny a certain health-care procedure or medicine that you and your doctor have decided is right for you. This is especially important because “deny” and “denial” are huge buzzwords in the GOP’s rhetoric. The reason is simple enough: Those words scare people.
The idea that you can be denied certain procedures now has the right screaming “rationing!” The left has quickly argued back, saying, “Health insurance companies already ration care” so why would a public option be any different?
In fact, rationing only makes economic sense. All resources are limited – including those in health care – and whether you have private or public insurance, it simply cannot cover everything. This may be a hyperbolic example, but even if you’re terminally ill, you cannot expect America to spend its entire GDP in order to save your life.
But wait – then aren’t we liberals justifying the actions of the dreaded health insurance industry? Are we actually saying we will model a public option the same way? Aren’t we putting a price on human life? The answer appears to be “yes.” Meanwhile, conservatives – who evidently oppose rationing in general – appear to be arguing that, regardless of costs, health care is a right! Both sides have swapped principles.
All this being said, I believe it is possible for progressive principles to be reconciled with pragmatism. Principles are impossible to implement without pragmatism, but they are still critical when it comes to improving public policy.
In order to achieve health-care reform, we Democrats need to get our principles back on track by reaffirming our basic beliefs and then by adding conditional reasoning.
The principle can be, “You have a right to coverage for basic health services” including doctor visits, pharmaceuticals and certain procedures. The cost-benefit analysis used in all economic decision-making will still be done by patients, doctors and bureaucrats – now both private and public.
How can Republicans reconcile with pragmatism and get their principles back on track? That I don’t know – you’ll have to ask my father.

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