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Vishal Khetpal Headshot

Escaping the Sideshow Politics of Obamacare

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If it hasn't already, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- or "Obamacare", depending on who's talking -- could soon be the next story to take over your TV set and Twitter feed. This latest development wouldn't be a surprise in a year already characterized by "big media" that borders on the episodic. Repeated single-day news cycles have already focused intently on the still missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370, the escalating conflict in Crimea, and the billion dollar acquisitions of corporations like Google and Facebook. It's only April.

Now personally, I've come to accept that today's mainstream media will continue to scream and shout that the sky is falling, and that it will misconstrue the world as a giant and churning dystopia not too different from Huxley's Brave New World. I understand that media is a competitive market, and that cable TV news broadcasters will bring in "experts" while talking in circles about a story with no developments, hoping for higher ratings. Yet when covering something like the Affordable Care Act -- probably the largest social undertaking in our country since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 -- I somehow find myself expecting a different standard, especially when we look to these outlets as a forum for general dialogue and discussion.

Instead, it focuses on the trivial. Pundits and radio talk show hosts will point at the brosurance ads in Colorado featuring keg stands and a smiling LeBron James encouraging you to get covered on the political left. They will point at the activism against "death panels" and a glitchy website derided by the political right. But I firmly believe that something this overarching deserves more than sidekick commentary, poorly written editorials, and political posturing for an election well over five months away.

You know it's bad when Comedy Central duo Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have probably provided the most accurate and nonpartisan coverage of a very serious bill, recently stunning Fox News business contributor Todd Wilemon for a full fifteen seconds, after he had accidentally likened America's healthcare system to that of a third world country. In this hyper-partisan environment, I still can't understand why I've been told by the right not to welcome a center-right solution to a broken system, and why the left blindly champions a piece of legislature that was only meant to start a conversation. This bill that spans into the thousands of pages seems to symbolize virtually everything wrong with the government-constituent-media dichotomy of American politics today. Here's why.

Our media doesn't focus on political action that has become increasingly antagonistic. We don't hear stories about how, for example, my current state of Missouri has marooned thousands of its uninsured citizens in a healthcare "no man's land" -- too poor to afford a reasonable policy from the healthcare marketplace, but too wealthy to qualify for Medicaid from an unexpanded program. These men and women fall under "the Medicaid gap" -- a dangerous problem, yet easily fixable if their state government took the ACA-integrated federal subsidies offered to it, amounting to over five million dollars a day, with no strings attached.

It seems clear to me that state governments like Missouri's are in the business of putting lives at stake for the cold objective of political gain, and the consequences of this "noncompliance" -- in medical terms -- are sweeping. Uninsured healthcare, as a friend recently put it, is like dark matter; it's huge, and nobody knows what it is. Expensive ER visits by our nation's poorest not only bankrupt individuals, but also fracture an increasingly underfunded and fragile healthcare infrastructure. By the end of this cycle, money ultimately flows away from providing preventative care -- a key source for tangible healthcare savings in the long-term.

It's a story I've heard repeatedly over the course of this semester, on Thursday afternoons, in a stuffy lecture hall where community health leaders from the St. Louis area come to briefly talk about their work and its challenges. I look around, and see iPhones and Macbooks, flittering through Facebook timelines, Buzzfeed articles, physics exam study guides, and, more recently, games of 2048. And even though most of my friends and classmates in that room are interested in medicine or are planning to work within the healthcare industry -- perhaps in the demographic that will be most affected by the PPACA in its fullest form -- I sense that we've turned ourselves off. We've become products of our society, curated by media where we're told that social activism shouldn't be this dirty. Telling another upper-middle class college student (anonymously) to "check their privilege" on a campus-wide Facebook group is enough good to do for the world in a day's work.

Because of our media, we don't realize that problems like the Medicaid gap are ubiquitous. Not even a few blocks away from my college campus, the BBC recently documented a short video on the perpetuated racial segregation of St. Louis, divided by a single street, where house prices varied by over threefold, and incomes by fivefold. Perhaps divided even deeper by this same "noncompliance." Reported on substantially less by our media, and tucked away from public discussion.

The Affordable Care Act isn't just "flash news," or another facet of media-made dystopia. It's the awakening of an open and public dialogue on national income inequality looming in the background of the American psyche since the days of Reagan. Healthcare reform is real -- it holds the potential to bring back a fundamental sense of security for the lower class, and to save our country trillions of taxpayer dollars while helping its citizens live longer and fuller lives. And yet we choose not to actively engage it, for better or worse. This bothers me, and we can do better.