Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Health Care Reformers: Beware of Words

At the excellent Philadelphia meeting featuring Wendell Potter, the former Cigna spokesman who now campaigns for health care reform and against health care for profit, I noticed the use of the words “services” and “benefits” when describing what insurance companies do. Think how misleading those ubiquitous terms are. It’s similar to the use of the term “service” when referring to a person’s choice to become a politician. Our representatives and senators “serve”. “Service” runs in the bloodlines of famous families. The term would only be used correctly if becoming a representative or a senator were purely voluntary. Similarly, people “serve” in the military. We used to have “selective service”, then we had “the draft”, more accurate. Now we have a volunteer army whose personnel “serves” - and sacrifices for - the country. Let’s be clear: recruits don’t “serve” the country, they serve special interests.
Getting back to health care, what insurance companies provide are not “benefits”: we don’t “benefit” from paying through our noses to insurance companies so that doctors (supposedly following ‘government guidelines - did you know that? ) can overcharge tenfold. Similarly, we should not use the term “benefit” to describe social security checks: it’s our money, allocated back to us at a shockingly low rate of return.
Now for the most damaging use of language in the fight for health care. Some activists remember to mention in passing that we are the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t have some form of “single payer” health care. Then they go on to say that, actually, France doesn’t really have a single payer plan. When I ask these activists where they get their information, they can’t remember. One of them assured me he had to be right because he had a Ph.d in political a science from an Ivy League university. That same activist rightly goes around reminding people not to believe what they read in the corporate press, yet he has apparently swallowed information dispensed by a university professor without question.
I have lived abroad for most of my life, and the only country I lived in that didn’t have government-run health care - and this was forty-five years ago - was Italy, which got a government-run system in 1978 that covers everyone. In France everybody pays a health care tax, you pay a small co-pay for freely chosen doctor’s visits and medications, every aspect of health care is covered. The fact that this is done through various professional entities does not mean that France doesn’t have single-payer. These entities merely administer the governmental system for their employees. Also, doctors can get permission to charge rates above what is covered by the government, for those who wish to pay the additional cost. You don’t get better care, or quicker care, by paying extra. I thirty years I never heard of a waiting list for care. France spends half what we do and if the French live longer it’s not just because they drink wine.
The left wrings its hands and wonders why it can’t get Americans out on the street to demand health care. Perhaps not surprisingly, in this morning’s event someone asked how other countries managed to get single payer health care. Neither Wendell Potter nor the journalist Rob Kall had a ready answer. No wonder: the people of Europe didn’t have to DO anything to get universal health care. It’s part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which all the countries signed, and, thanks to the legality of every conceivable type of left-wing party and an uninterrupted working-class tradition, no government could question this basic principle. That’s what is meant when someone says: “The Europeans can’t understand why we don’t have universal health care.”
So please, activists, don’t contradict yourselves when you say this, by adding the caveat that this or that European country doesn’t really have single-payer. You’re shooting us all in the foot.
P.S. Government run health care was mandated in the Kaiser’s Germany by the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismark in 1870. Most of the other European countries got it either just before or just after the Second World War.

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