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Evan Handler

Evan Handler

Posted: September 10, 2009 02:47 PM

Have You No Decency, Sir? At Long Last, Have You No Sense of Decency?


I'm pretty invested in this health care bill battle. First, twenty-four years ago, when I was 24 years old, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. My medical treatments lasted over four years, cost close to half a million dollars, and were largely paid for by insurance coverage from my two acting unions, Actors Equity Association and Screen Actors Guild. Still, my family was forced to empty my bank account to meet official poverty levels (there wasn't very much to spend, at the time) in order to qualify for Social Security disability payments, and my years of illness nearly bankrupted my parents -- in spite of all the insurance coverage and assistance. I can tell you firsthand: even the most privileged among us are within a millimeter of losing everything to an unexpected illness. I was lucky enough to escape the clutches of what was then considered to be an incurable disease. I had my life. But I was left with nothing else. So, I'm puzzled, and amazed, and dismayed, by those who want health care reform legislation to be anything other than the most comprehensive and powerful it can possibly be.

Then there's my new family. My wife is from Italy. She, her parents, her grandparents, all her relatives, and all their friends have received prompt, capable, and comprehensive health care
their entire lives, and it hasn't cost them a thing. They've had their teeth cleaned regularly, their cavities filled, gum tissue transplants, fused spinal discs, abdominal surgeries, you name it. They didn't wait any longer than anyone would here. Nothing was rationed or withheld. They were, and are, every age, from zero to 94. Their government makes sure that its citizens can visit the doctor, have surgeries, and take care of their health, period. It's a right of existence, and -- to judge by my wife's circle -- it's working well (and Italy ain't exactly known for things working well). For that matter, my wife also attended the high school of her choice free of charge, and a world renowned Italian University for $200 per year. Why wouldn't Americans want the same? If they do want it, why are these things being kept from them? Maybe a more pertinent question today is, why are they being encouraged and instructed to fear this kind of progress on the part of their government, which every other advanced nation's government in the world has already long embraced?

Last night's eruption during President Obama's speech was a good example of that last tendency. It reminded me of the famous quotation from Joseph Welch, spoken to Senator Joseph McCarthy, who'd already spent years ruining careers and lives with less than sincere (and far less than accurate) accusations of anti-Americanism.

Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?, is what Mr. Welch said in 1954. And it precipitated the downfall of a legendary bully (who is now largely regarded as a blowhard).

It would have been interesting if President Obama had responded to Republican Congressman Joseph Wilson's outburst of "You lie!" with those same iconic words. First, it would have been interesting to see whether the Congressman, or others, might have responded; whether the president would have responded once again; and whether this would have resulted in spirited and unscripted debate, thus giving us all a glimpse of what an American version of British Parliament might look like.

But our House of Representatives isn't British Parliament. There have been plenty of times I've wished it was. It would be great to have a forum where questions and criticisms could be shouted out at our elected leaders, thereby compelling them to respond. But we don't have that forum. And, since we don't, Joseph Wilson should have followed some simple rules. You do not shout "You lie!" at the president while he's addressing Congress, and the nation. More crucially, you don't shout "You lie!" at the president when he's stating the irrefutable fact that his health care proposals do not offer coverage to illegal residents of the United States.

Since facts, such as the one I just mentioned, don't seem to hold as much influence as facts used to, let me quote from the health care proposal being prepared for submission to congress:

H.R. 3200: Sec 246 NO FEDERAL PAYMENT FOR UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.

I do not know what makes the language of Sec. 246 so hard to understand, or accept. Since it's right there, visible for anyone to read, I have to suspect that Joseph Wilson either doesn't know it's there, or doesn't care. That he, and the many (many, many) others who are furious about aspects of the proposed health care legislation, simply want to use any emotion, misinformation, slander, or lie to prevent its passage. That's a shame, because a) there are plenty of areas in which to find legitimate fault in the bill, as with many bills, and b) because giving health care insurance to the most people possible is a very good thing to do. That's why every other advanced nation on planet Earth does it -- and most of them have far greater health than we enjoy, and spend much less on keeping it that way.

So why are so many still vehemently opposed? To me, all the arguments against fall apart when inspected with any sense of logic. There's the slander, intimated last night, that the bill covers illegal immigrants. It doesn't. I sometimes wonder whether this misguided argument stems from the fact that the bill would presumably cover the offspring of illegal immigrants, should they be born on United States soil. But those new human beings, if born in the United States, are United States citizens. That's the law. If the complaint is with that law, then the bill's opponents should confront that issue, not the health care bill. (Of course, that would require altering the Constitution of the United States, which grants citizenship rights to anyone born here. The same constitution that conservatives consider perfect, and worthy of protection from "revisionist" judges. I guess that's an inconsistency they still need to work out.)

For the life of me, and not for lack of effort, I can't wrap my mind around the logic of those against aggressive reform -- including a "public option." I posted some thoughts on Facebook late last night and got response after response from people wishing a bill would bring "liability/tort reform," "oversight," or "create incentives," and "level the playing field," all followed by the demand that this not include "big government involvement." I'm sorry, but that doesn't track. All those things require government involvement. At least some opponents seem to want government to provide, without being "involved."

To take it a step further, all those expressed cravings above would be best accomplished by the government offering an optional, only-if-you-want-it, government sponsored insurance option. That's the way to keep insurance companies honest! By offering a competent, comprehensive, affordable, and compassionate alternative they will be forced to match, or else lose customers. Honestly, I think many of those who are opposed have been sold an ideological bill of goods. "Government bad. Oppose it. Even if it's offering something you need."

One concern I can at least understand is that offering lower cost, government sponsored insurance might put insurance companies at an unfair competitive disadvantage, thereby forcing some out of business, and costing people jobs. I can understand the concerns, but the argument doesn't hold up. First, insurance company profits are enormous. There's room for diminishment. Second, we're talking about legislation that would insure forty-five million more people! Insurance companies could easily make up for lowered rates and maintain, or surpass, profits through increased revenue. And, even if the government program "stole" customers away and forced some, or (gasp) all, insurance companies out of business, that would mean the government's insurance entity would have to hire enough workers to accommodate the forty-five million new customers. Workers are going to be needed. Forty-five million new policy holders will create jobs, not eliminate them.

I've heard the impassioned cry that any "public option" will act as a "foot in the door," after which citizens will be forced to use government subsidized insurance, or government provided health care (the latter being an option that's never been proposed). Complaining about having subsidized insurance provided to you sounds to me a bit like complaining about having Social Security or unemployment benefits imposed upon you. But, putting that aside, I really can't see it happening, unless an overwhelming majority of people really like the way things are going. I mean, a military draft couldn't stand up to public opposition. Do you really think government health insurance, if attempted, that wasn't pleasing the people, could survive where a military draft could not?

That still leaves those who just think government screws everything up, and don't want it given any more responsibility or influence over their lives. I can sure understand the sentiment. But is the solution to forever prohibit government from attempting to get better? I'd like to know how many who oppose more "government involvement" home-school their children, take their own garbage to the dump, keep their own reservoirs functioning and safe, repair their own streets, build and operate their own public transportation (or refuse to use it, wherever they go), or VOLUNTARILY OPT OUT OF MEDICARE WHEN THEY REACH 65!!, and send their unemployment and social security checks back out of principled opposition? And I'm not talking about foregoing one or two, folks. You're either on the grid, or you're off. There's no in-between. The reactionary in me wants to say, "Fess up. You suck at the government's tit, then complain when chocolate milk ain't flowing." My emotional side is tired of it.

But, having cleared my spleen of my own frustration, I just encourage you all to look at it another way. Not how the government has failed you to this point, but at what the government might be offering now to improve upon the past. If you don't allow for that opportunity, if you only exist in defensive mode, you could very well be blocking the improvement you're aching for.

Evan Handler's new book is "It's Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive."

EvanHandler.com