Listening to the President Wednesday night, I found it interesting, as always whenever a President addresses Congress, which sides of the aisle (Democratic or Republican) applaud and don’t applaud, stand in ovation, or sit without clapping, depending on the issue. I was surprised to see the Republicans not standing when the President said that the idea that his health care reform plan would require government bureaucrats to make decisions about when to kill older Americans is false. That’s something I thought every educated person knows – even the media have been debunking that widespread scare story. I was also surprised that when the President explained his support for a nonprofit or public alternative to private insurance companies whenever competition was lacking and there was not enough choice for consumers, stating that he would always make sure the American people have a choice, the Republicans did not applaud for that. Usually, of course, they are all for free choice and competition, and the President said the public or nonprofit alternative would not be subsidized so it would not be competing unfairly. Of course, one other area where Republicans, at least most of the ones who get elected to Congress, are often anti-choice is abortion. Somehow they are all for free choice except when it comes to letting others freely exercise their legal right to abortion. Besides death panels and illegal immigrants, the President stated that it was also false that his plan would spend public money (ie. tax dollars) on abortion – no public money would be used on abortion. I assume this means that if low or moderate income folks were subsidized to buy a health insurance policy and they happened to purchase a plan that includes abortion, they could only use that plan to access abortion if they had paid enough of their own money to cover the abortion services. Unfortunately I did not get a view of who was applauding for that one, but I suspect at least a few pro-choice members on the Democratic side of the aisle were not. I was disappointed that the President caved on this issue, before the issue has really been joined, whereas he stood up for the public option, or at least its equivalent.
Overall, I thought the President’s speech was studiously bi-partisan. He opened by saying he wanted to work with both parties. He cited Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican) as the first president to call for health care reform, he acknowledged Rep. John Dingell’s father, like his son a Democratic Congressman, for introducing the first comprehensive health care bill in 1943, he acknowledged Senator John McCain, his Republican opponent in the recent presidential campaign, for having a good idea in wanting to create a special high risk insurance pool for those who cannot otherwise get insurance. Regarding the ‘public option,’ he urged the Left to consider alternatives to government provision of this alternative, such as non-profits, and he urged the Republicans to work with him to put their alternatives forward and iron out details that can get agreement rather than not participate in the process. He also offered up a pet issue of the Republicans, tort reform, and said he has asked the Health and Human Services Department to begin to work on a recommendation there. He promised that health care reform will not increase the deficit and his speech sought to assure everyone that they have something to gain – insurance companies would be better regulated helping consumers who already have insurance so they could not be excluded, dropped, or gouged with high out-of-pocket costs, so that they need not fear bankruptcy caused by medical bills, and those without insurance would be able to purchase it because they would have affordable options.
As expected, President Obama acknowledged the Kennedy family members present, and then he read a letter he received from Senator Kennedy after his death (Senator Kennedy was, of course, a proud Democrat). He used the Senator’s words to urge Congress to commit to making change this year. 100 years, the President said, was too long to wait for health care. The most partisan note, to me, was when one Republican member of Congress shouted “you lie” to the President when the President said it was false that immigrants in the United States illegally would receive health care under his plan. At that, Democratic members booed that member, since, after all, the House has long-standing rules of civility (believe it or not) and calling someone a liar violates that rule. I thought the Speaker and the Vice President, who were presiding, were considering calling for order and ejecting the offender, but they did not, and the evening proceeded without another confrontation of that sort. By this morning, the member of Congress who broke the rule of civility had apologized profusely for doing so.
In my opinion, President Obama’s speech offered a clear and forceful explanation of where he stands and of what he wants health care reform to include and a substantive rebuttal of the common distortions that are rampant. He stressed that four committees have passed health care reform bills and that the fifth is expected to do so shortly. He pointed out that the bills agree on 80 to 85 percent of their content and that Democrats and Republicans similarly agree on most of the basic points: that consumers need better protections and insurance companies need to be better regulated, that everyone should have access to affordable health insurance and that low income people should have help in that, and that everyone should do their share (meaning companies should pay for workers’ health insurance if they can afford to and that even young, healthy folks who think they will never get sick should be required to purchase health care insurance). All of this committee action is unprecedented. The degree of agreement on the basics is high. And, thus, it seems we may be much closer to enacting health care reform than many media representatives and talking heads seem to think we are.
Heidi Hartmann, President