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Carmen Burcea-Haber Headshot

Changing What Game?

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The new slogan for Independence Blue Cross, the giant health insurance company with its corporate headquarters in Philadelphia is "We're changing the game". We came across a giant banner hung across the façade of its imposing Market Street skyscraper proclaiming as much and then saw it advertised on buses.

I didn't realize that health insurance was a game. But I guess from their point of view it is: How can we rip people off and pay our CEOs and shareholders more? It's a game without a clock, or it was, until the Affordable Care Act got the country moving in a direction that could one day, hope against hope, lead to our joining the rest of the civilized world and consider health a right and not a privilege someone can make a profit on. So the clock is ticking, and they are changing the game.

My husband called their offices to see if he could find someone willing to explain what game they were referring to. After a hold time in which several glaciers could have melted, he found himself speaking with someone named Sharon, who made valiant efforts to explain that 1) it was just a slogan, 2) it was meant to be related to the Olympics (which, she said, people were "very interested in"), and 3) if we were offended we had the right to our opinions. She explained that their company had made some changes that the new campaign was highlighting, related to making it easier for patients to "control" their health care. When asked what that meant, she explained a handful of new tools the website offers and a few other related things, mainly dealing with providing resources and information -- all fine and dandy but hardly "game-changing", even if one is to accept this irrelevant, inappropriate and offensive linguistic choice.

The Olympics? A 17-day affair that has come to be associated as much with jingoism as with sport? And now that it's over will they change the slogan, take down the offensive advertising? Sharon didn't know the plan.

That's when we realized: "Game-change" -- where has that expression been used? Of course! The vice presidential choice, the HBO movie based on the book, about Palin, and now an expression recycled once again as people speak of Mitt's dubious choice of Paul Ryan. In fact, politics is a sort of game, and calling a choice of that nature a game changer has some validity. As such, the term has become associated with politics, more than with sporting events. In its literal sense a last-minute goal or a buzzer-beating basket is of course a game changer, but you don't hear it used in that context; it's too obvious. No, a game changer has come to be associated with the political game. And as such, Independence Blue Cross, consciously or not, has associated itself with the political game.

In fact, Sharon proudly touted that now kids 26 and under could stay on their parents insurance plans, and preventative care visits were covered. Reminded that this was not some act of generosity by the insurance giant, but the law now, thanks to the much-slandered "Obamacare" aka Affordable Care Act, Sharon admitted that to be true, but said that her company instituted these improvements ahead of the deadline. Wow, what a game changer.

But the problem isn't simply that their ideas of change are trivial, which they are. It's also that the new slogan -- a banal, inappropriate, irrelevant idea (which is accompanied by a TV and multimedia ad campaign in which Olympic sports are used to support this new concept) is offensive, because it highlights the lack of thought, empathy, and understanding that is at the heart of profiting off of people's medical needs.

Having lived in Europe for many years, I can state, for the record, that health care in my experience is better, cheaper, and more accessible in Western Europe, where health care costs for individuals and their governments are a fraction of what they are here. The stories of long waits for specialists or operations are truer in the U.S. than in Europe. Here we can't even approach a fight to lead to a public option, let alone single payer. In Europe they have the private option. Doctors are well enough off, owning nice houses and cars. Prescription medicines are cheaper and more varied. People can see doctors when they need to, as opposed to worrying whether their insurance will cover it, and if it does, what the co-pay or deductible is. In most countries in Western Europe, health care is a right. Here, owning a gun is a right, but seeing a doctor isn't. Here, people lose their houses and their property when they get sick, if their coverage is insufficient or non-existent. Here, too many people think that their neighbor should not have the right to see a doctor unless he pays for it. "Why should I cover that guy's bills? He can go to the emergency room!" The selfishness is our undoing. Why don't they realize that the society and economy suffer when the costs of health care are so high and so many people so vulnerable?

There are many stories of Americans in Europe needing medical attention, for accidents, illness and misfortune, who get treated, for free. My husband broke his collarbone in Rome some years ago and was treated and healed for free, and this included emergency care, x-rays, follow-ups lasting over one month and final care. We met a doctor in Florence who told us about an oil-man from Houston who had an acute attack of a chronic condition that required emergency surgery and three days hospitalization. When it was over he was cured, forever, and had spent three days in a brand new, high tech facility and treated by one of Italy's top doctors in the field. Cost -- zero. When asked how this could be, the doctor told him: it's in our constitution. So how do they pay for it? Taxes, of course.

Those dreaded taxes, no one wants to pay here, but the fact is we pay in other ways, and more. We spend more per capita on health care, people live shorter lives and it has a direct impact on employment: when companies can't afford to pay the health care costs they don't hire. In Europe the government covers the majority of health care costs, and companies aren't responsible. And people live longer and don't stress about going broke if they happen to get sick or are in an accident.

Interesting that Sharon should brag about her company's compliance with "Obamacare" laws as if they were their own initiative, given the fact that the health insurance lobby spends millions to alter the political climate. Who else had the biggest stake in making sure the public option was never an option? So that is the game! We pretend to care about the "patients" (who are better known as consumers -- i.e., suckers), while in fact we alter the politics behind the scenes to make sure we maximize our profits. When they say they are "changing the game", what they are really doing is rigging the "game" and while pretending to make things better for us, in fact are simply making it easier for us to give them our money. Is it getting cheaper, fairer, better in real terms? When asked, Sharon didn't have an answer, and simply repeated that we were entitled to our opinions.

When Independence Blue Cross advertises that they are "changing the game," their utterly confused and muddled message seems to hope we will identify them with U.S. Olympic athletes -- heroic, hard-working, deserving, and proud Americans we should support and want to do business with, who are doing something new that will help us all win together. Instead it reveals that they consider their business a game: if it is changing then it means that to them it was a game before, it's a game now and it will be a new game in the future. But a game it was and remains. And in a game someone wins and someone loses. Guess who loses.