08/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Freedom Isn't Free" -- Neither Is Health Care

The $106 billion the United States insists on throwing at Iraq and Afghanistan each year because George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had visions of a "New American Century" dancing in their heads has, from the start, been a draining expense the nation could ill afford. And this huge outlay of taxpayer cash comes on top of the over $600 billion burned up on the "peacetime" military budget. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were sold to the nation as moral imperatives, not as taxpayer burdens. The health care debate, so far, has been framed as a taxpayer burden instead of a moral imperative. This framing must change or we'll be waiting another 70 years before we get a just and equitable health care system in this country.

People leading the anti-health care charge, whether they be Blue Dog Democrats, Republicans, Tea Baggers, or Glen Beck, often become dewy-eyed emoting about the "heroism" of our soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan (as Sarah Palin did yesterday in her farewell address). But they have no real sense of shared sacrifice with their fellow citizens. Nothing illustrates this point better than their fanatical commitment to destroying any progress on health care. Sean Hannity of FOX News has devoted special editions of his show to shilling for the HMO and pharmaceutical industries. Hannity and the others specialize in giving us jingoistic talk about how "freedom isn't free," but they fuse these sentiments with a deep-seated cynicism toward government. On the issue of health care this cynicism crystallizes in the form of disinformation and scare tactics about creeping "socialism." For these folks government can expertly manage foreign wars and occupations, but it can't do a damn thing to help Americans find relief from a predatory private health care system.

Every four years there are speeches and "town hall" meetings and press releases and sound bites from all the candidates promising to do something about our dysfunctional health care system. And every four years after the polls close, and the campaigns have shut their doors, and the confetti and deflated balloons are in the garbage, the health care promises are discarded like so much left-over campaign detritus.

From what I can tell about what's going on in the U.S. Senate right now on health care, it doesn't look like we're going to get anything passed that is remotely progressive. We're told that in the name of "bipartisanship" there'll be no public option, no employer mandate, and no tax on the richest Americans to pay for it.

No public option means insurers can still reap huge profits from a captive market. No employer mandate means corporations can milk government subsidies without paying for insuring their employees. And not taxing the richest Americans means there'll be regressive and unpopular mechanisms for payment that will hit the middle class. Are these "bipartisan" compromises or "poison pills" inserted by Republicans who don't want health care reform?

Dominating the debate is not the outrage of having a health care system that victimizes millions of people each year, but how we're going to pay for it. Turn on the TV and across the board you'll see the costs of health care emphasized over the morality of the issue. This frame plays right into the hands of those who wish to block progress.

President Obama must find a way to re-frame the debate in moral terms. Hopefully, he'll make a series of public appearances this fall culminating in a stadium-size rally where thousands of people can tell their personal health care atrocity stories. Make the networks cover it. Show the American people that health care is not an accounting problem but a moral imperative.