Thursday, August 20, 2009

Health Detractors "Bearing False Witness," Say Obama, Columnists and Fact-Checkers

Reporters, columnists and independent fact-checkers are all but univocal in confirming what President Obama told 30 faith-based groups yesterday in a conference call streamed on the web at the loudest detractors of the specific health-care reform proposals being considered by the White House and Congress "are, frankly, bearing false witness."

CNN said the groups had about 140,000 people on the conference call. Quoting Obama, CNN said:

He referred to some assertions as "ludicrous," and cited as an example rumors that the government is planning to set up "death panels" to determine the fate of the nation's elderly.

"That is just an extraordinary lie," he said, adding that it was based on a provision in the House legislation that would allow Medicare to reimburse someone who voluntarily sought counseling on how to set up a living will for the end of life.

"It gives an option that people who can afford fancy lawyers already experience," the Harvard-trained lawyer said.

In addition, the plan does not provide health insurance to illegal aliens, it does not represent a government takeover of health care and it would not lead to government funding of abortion, he said.

"These are all fabrications that have been put out there in order to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation: that is, that we look out for one another; that is, I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper. And in the wealthiest nation in the world right now we are neglecting to live up to that call."

CNN was not alone in this reporting. In fact, reporters on all of the broadcast networks and the preponderance of the cable networks have said for several weeks that all of these claims are false. NBC said so explicitly in discussing the latest poll results, which showed, unfortunately, that large numbers of Americans have been stampeded into believing them.

Over the course of this week, several print columnists have also picked apart such claims, and found them bogus.

On August 17th Houston Chronicle political columnist Lisa Falkenberg reported on lies she had heard in person while attending a local medical support group in Katy. In a printed handout that purported to be a plain-language "translation" of one of the House health care reform bills, several of the bogus claims were represented as fact. Falkenberg traced the wording of the handout to "Peter Fleckenstein, a prolific conservative Tweeter whose blog, Common Sense from a Common Man, is filled with anti-health care reform analysis." She said Fleckenstein's claims had been checked by, "the St. Petersburg Times' truth-testing Web site." Politifact found each of the claims false--most of them with no basis whatsoever in reality, one of them with a basis that Fleckenstein had totally distorted.

On August 16th Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. zeroed in specifically on the falsehood of the "death panels" claim. He said the conservative detractors of the health care reform plans had no real objections of substance, and so "the only thing they have to sell is fear itself." Some excerpts from Pitts' column:

So excuse me, beg pardon, but it would be really valuable to hear an explanation of the bill by those who presumably have read it, followed by vigorous questioning. Instead, the circus has come to town.

I refer, of course, to the chaos that has erupted at townhall meetings as Democratic lawmakers try to sell the bill. The New York Times reports shouting matches, fistfights, threats, injuries and arrests. Georgia Congressman David Scott says he's had death threats and a visit from vandals who painted a swastika outside his office.

Conservatives would have you believe this pandemonium is spontaneous. Truth is, it's about as spontaneous as a shuttle launch. The Times account tells us a banner appeared on the web site of Fox News host Sean Hannity inviting people to ''Become a part of the mob!'' A group calling itself Tea Party Patriots advises its members to pack the hall and "yell out.'' This is manufactured outrage.

And that's fine. If people choose to become part of a synchronized protest, they have every right to. Nor is there anything wrong with dissent. As many of us pointed out when George W. Bush's enablers sought to silence his critics, dissent is patriotic.

But shouting down those who disagree with you is not. Neither is threatening, shoving, hitting, painting swastikas or otherwise rendering reasoned debate impossible. That's not love of country, it's not dissent, it's not even civilized. It's boorish, oafish and crude, the rantings of people panicked beyond reason.

In other words, conservatives. OK, not all of them. But too many of them? Definitely.

By now, it has become reflex, this instinct of theirs to manipulate the debate and muddy the waters by stoking people's primal fears, whether of gays, Muslims, Hispanics or now, health care reform.

"I'm afraid of Obama!" screams a woman. And doesn't that just say it all? Doesn't that speak volumes about the intellectual bankruptcy and decayed moral authority of the political right? With apologies to Franklin Roosevelt, the only thing they have to sell is fear itself.

And no, that's not patriotism. It is the cynical behavior of people who have little faith in their ability to win the debate. So they pick a fight and try to win that instead.

Also on August 16th, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman took on the bogus claim that Obama wanted to turn American health care into a British-style government-run system. Krugman had some fun with the editors of Investor's Business Daily, which, he said

tried to frighten its readers by declaring that in Britain, where the government runs health care, the handicapped physicist Stephen Hawking “wouldn’t have a chance,” because the National Health Service would consider his life “essentially worthless.”

Professor Hawking, who was born in Britain, has lived there all his life, and has been well cared for by the National Health Service, was not amused.

However, what Krugman found more entertaining was that none of the proposed reforms is modeled on anything like the U.K. system--even though our Veterans Health Administration is already run somewhat like it. Nor are they modeled on the Canadian and French systems, which leave "actual delivery of health care in private hands, but the government pays most of the bills"--even though that's close to how Medicare already works. The actual model for many of the House proposals, already emulated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, comes from Switzerland:

Everyone is required to buy insurance, insurers can’t discriminate based on medical history or pre-existing conditions, and lower-income citizens get government help in paying for their policies.

If we were starting from scratch we probably wouldn’t have chosen this route. True “socialized medicine” would undoubtedly cost less, and a straightforward extension of Medicare-type coverage to all Americans would probably be cheaper than a Swiss-style system. That’s why I and others believe that a true public option competing with private insurers is extremely important: otherwise, rising costs could all too easily undermine the whole effort.

But a Swiss-style system of universal coverage would be a vast improvement on what we have now. And we already know that such systems work.

So we can do this. At this point, all that stands in the way of universal health care in America are the greed of the medical-industrial complex, the lies of the right-wing propaganda machine, and the gullibility of voters who believe those lies.

Krugman allows that "costs are running higher than expected" in the Massachsetts program. From other reports, that's more than a little understated. Indeed, whether other states have adopted models that are more affordable is one of the legitimate issues we should be debating--if only the shouters would stop drowning out all discussion.

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