The core argument of the hysterical Republican diatribe against Obamacare is that it will push Americans down a slippery slope into the nightmare of, gasp, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE! The phrase regularly trips from the lips of GOP reactionaries. Here's Texas Senator Ted Cruz in his recent 22-hour speech: "Socialized medicine is -- and has been everywhere it has been implemented in the world -- a disaster. Obamacare -- its intended purpose is to lead us unavoidably down that path." Congressman Marlin Stutzman (R-IND) tells us, "Obamacare is a perfect tool to crush free enterprise and force all Americans into a socialist health care system."
These mantras are not really about health care. They are conversation-stoppers. They are designed to flood the mind with murky images of indifferent bureaucratic sloth, incompetent if not sadistic doctors and nurses, dingy overcrowded waiting rooms and other grim scenes from a dystopian medical horror movie. The purpose is to convince the public that as bad as our health care system is, real change would make it worse.
The menace of socialized medicine is perhaps the most successful long-running propaganda campaign in our political history. The rest of the civilized world has established health care systems that produce healthier outcomes at half the cost, while we Americans - our minds clouded with specters of brutal Stalinist collectivism -- cling to our grossly inefficient, expensive, unfair and unhealthy way of preventing and dealing with illness.
Effective propaganda not only stops the conversation, it stops thought. Once you are convinced of the presence of unfathomable evil, there is no need to try to fathom it. The mind becomes safely barricaded against reality.
My sister-in-law Liz -- an American -- lives in London, where they really do have socialized medicine in the form of the government-run National Health Service (NHS). She called on a recent Saturday. Suddenly her vision had become blurry and she saw floating spots in front of her eyes. Since my wife had recently had a torn retina, Liz asked her advice. Marge said Liz should see a doctor.
So Liz hung up and clicked online to the NHS "symptom checker" web site. Less than a minute later, she got a message with flashing red lights confirming that she needed medical attention. Then the phone rang. It was a-physician's assistant. They discussed her symptoms. He concluded that she should come to the eye hospital right away.
But it was a rainy Saturday night and Liz's husband was out of town. She would rather have waited until Monday. "Don't wait," he said. "Come to the hospital now. They will be expecting you." When she still resisted, he said, with a Pakistani lilt to a typical British expression: "Do it for me, love."
She did. As soon as she arrived a doctor examined her and confirmed that her retina was torn and that she needed laser surgery. But there were a few emergency cases ahead of her. So, she had three options: wait a few hours and have it done that night; go home and come back at 8 AM and be taken immediately; or, if she didn't want to go home in the rain, she could stay over night in the hospital -- free of charge of course. She opted to go home. Next morning -- 8 AM Sunday -- she had the procedure.
The bill? Zero. Indeed, there was no bill. There were no insurance forms. No deductibles. No waiting for the hospital and doctor to make sure they would be paid. The entire system from the time she logged in to the symptom checker was focused on solving her medical problem as quickly as possible and without the frustrating red tape that ties up Americans before they even see a nurse, much less a doctor,
Unfortunately, this was not her first experience; Liz and her family have had several serious health problems over the last few years. Fortunately, they live in a country where health care is considered a human right. The treatment in every case has been excellent, and free.
As a taxpayer, Liz pays indirectly. But it is cheaper than such coverage -- if it were available -- would cost here. That's because overall health care costs as a share of the British economy are less than half of what they in the U.S., despite the millions of Americans who remain without coverage. Yet the British live longer and by most measure are much healthier, having fewer incidences of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, lung disease, hypertension and other major serious health problems. These facts rarely if ever, make their way into our national discussion.
Having associated the phrase socialized medicine with frightening negatives, propagandists in the service of the corporate health care industry are free to apply the term indiscriminately to anything that might threaten their profits.
Medicare was denounced as socialism until it became too popular to attack. Obamacare -- a plan originally designed by the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation to further embed the private insurance and pharmaceutical companies in the health care system -- is similarly smeared. As is the Canadian single-payer system, which like Medicare, preserves the delivery of health care by private doctors under a government-run insurance pool.
The problem is not just Republican Tea Party reactionaries and shills for the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Democrats, including those who know better, are thoroughly intimidated by these paranoid images. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have acknowledged that a Canadian -- style single payer system, in effect Medicare for everyone, is the best solution to our chronic health care crisis. It is simple to understand, covers everyone, and would cut our national health care costs in half. But both suppressed even discussion of it as too radical. So they ended up proposing -- in Obama's case, passing -- an expensive, vastly complicated, program that makes marginal improvements, but still will leave millions without coverage and the insurance and drug companies free to charge whatever the market will bear.
The point is not that the British, or Canadian or any other system is necessarily the exactly right model for the U.S. But we will never get anywhere near the right model unless the ideological fog that clouds our political discourse on health care is lifted. Only when the public can see clearly that there are workable alternatives will we reform our perverse "free market" health care system. Until then, even with Obamacare, we will continue to coddle the corporate scaremongers while back here in the real world ordinary Americans needlessly suffer -- and die.