Debates Lead to Provocative Thoughts on Healthcare

I tried really hard not to write this blog entry, to swallow my outrage and stifle my word processor. I chose something pleasant and calming the past few days…picking plums and blackberries on our farm…to try to talk myself down from the ledge of jumping into this media morass. For I knew that giving more pages and voice to these distractions would take up valuable time and energy that I could otherwise spend on trying to find solutions to healthcare reform.

But I cannot stay silent. Too many of usprobably the silent majority of us who are homeless between the polarizing rhetorics of Right and Leftare staying silent. Many of us have come to a place of cynical inevitability, complacency, even helplessness (“what can I do about it?”) as these fear campaigns are suddenly waged to delay, disrupt, and distort healthcare reform and so many other important items on our national agenda. But it is hard for me to remain silent when the headlines come home to roost.

It was 4 or 5 days agobefore the euthanasia stories had swamped the airwaves. Our landline almost never rings except for the occasional telemarketer. And almost never after 9pm. But at 9:15pm, a close family friend called: “Hey, Eric, can I ask you a couple of questions about healthcare reform?” I didn’t have time to reply before the question flew out: “What’s this about enforced suicide, and are older people like me really going to have to take a class on suicide before getting healthcare coverage?”

I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t find words to even begin to respond. I finally said, in a tone more angry and condescending than I intended, “What!? Are you crazy? Do you seriously think Congress is working on a bill to make you go to class about suicide or is trying to get people to kill themselves when they get old or sick?”

“Well, it seems pretty real…a friend of mine forwarded me some of the language of the internet,” came the sheepish response.

“And you believe this stuff?” I blurted out. “Call your friend back and tell them this is complete nonsense. I’ve read every line of every Congressional health bill I can get my hands on, and this just isn’t true. It’s another internet hoax. No one is trying to mandate classes or suicide or anything like that. Give me a break! You’ve got a master’s degree and should know better!” Then I went on to lecture this poor friend about the need for more critical thinking, the ways to research the facts, and the importance of speaking truth to “internet friends who forward this garbage.” (While all of those things are true, I hope this friend will forgive my tone and feel free to ask questions again in the future, in spite of the way I reacted.)

Tonight, it was raining when I got home, so I watched the news on TV instead of picking fruit. The top local news storywith flying graphics and dramatic music scoring the emotional dramawas about Congressman Wu’s town hall in Portland, leading you to believe there was a riotous mob there against healthcare reform. My coworker had attended that same town hall in person and didn’t even mention any riotous behavior or “crazy” questioners. The vast majority of the meeting was a productive discussion and debatenot the sensation-selling, adrenalin-addicting clips shown on the news.

Then I watched Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News…with scary clips from the town hall with Arlen Specter showing a man yelling and screaming…and panning across the partisan posters from protesters who congregated outside the venue. Again, the camera (and editing) of the newscast showed the sensational soundbytes of a few extreme people, leaving you with the false feeling that these town halls are dangerous places and that there is a huge movement against healthcare reform. The actions and words of a few extremists grab the headlines while the silent majority watches in disbelief.

It is easy to push emotional buttons or to whip up a media frenzy around controversial issues: just throw in any of the buzz phrases in the title of this blog, and stir. It is easy to get caught up in the fear: I found myself with my Intel colleagues wondering out loud if we should cancel some town halls we were planning about personal health technologies. It is hard to portray a more nuanced, representative story of what is happening in a soundbyte. It is hard to come up with ideas for reforming healthcare, to negotiate and compromise with hundreds of constituent groups, and to change our collective attitudes and behaviors towards health.

We live in a world that can be frightening for real reasons: we are still learning to deal with terrorism on our own soil after 9-11; we are in the midst of a painful recession that is stealing away livelihoods from too many people; the specter of H1N1 haunts us again as we move towards autumn; and the economic threats of the age wave and healthcare costs are upon us. But the fear mongering around healthcare reform, made worse by the media megaphone of 24 by 7 “news” cycles, is a contagious virus that we cannot allow to spread. We have to find ways to inoculate ourselves against these emotional extremes…and to wash our hands of this epidemic of chronic fear.

We have to refuse to be distracted by emotional ploys and horrific headlines, remembering that the camera lens almost always aims for the extremes. We have to refuse to forward those crazy, fact-less emails that show up in our inbox, deleting them instead of perpetuating those fictional fears with our friends and family. We have to refuse to stay silent, while holding to the healthcare issues and ideas that really matter: giving everyone access, reducing costs, paying for quality over quantity, moving care to the home, focusing on prevention and early detection, and training up a 21st century healthcare workforce.

With that, I’ll go back to picking fruit. It’s a relaxing activity…that gives me the time and freedom and optimism and audacity…to believe that I can contribute to healthcare reform in America…and to remember that I have nothing to fear but fear itself.

related news:

TODAYshow.COM on | Chuck Todd, NBC News Chief White House Correspondent:

The roots of rage at a town hall meeting, by Ian Urbina and Katharine Q. Seelye
The New York Times

TODAYshow.COM on | TODAY Exclusive
Sen. Claire McCaskill One-on-One

3 Responses to Debates Lead to Provocative Thoughts on Healthcare

  1. mark francis says:

    Great post Eric.
    I think we are seeing that healthcare is a deeply personal and emotional issue – perhaps moreso than was anticipated.
    We have to remember that this debate is happening in the context of greater health care cost shifting onto the individual and a scary, long-running recession where millions have lost jobs and are at risk of losing jobs. So there is real fear amongst people.
    Moreover, we have a massive increase in spending during the past six months – on legislation that many legislators now admit they never read the details. Pardon the language, but people are pissed off over this. To bum-rush health care reform with the position of “trust us” – that is not going to fly.
    On top of this, it is not credible to believe that 40 million people can be provided coverage without either increasing costs, reforming the system, or rationing care. Yes, these are complicated issues – but people are not stupid. These are natural conclusions for people to reach and people want to understand how this will be done.
    Fundamentally, the administration screwed up by deferring leadership on this issue to the House. Frankly, Paul’s recent article provided more leadership on this issue than have the President, Nancy Pelosi, or Henry Waxman.
    Yesterday, I listened to a Congreswoman defend the public plan by using the US Post Office as an example of how well a government run entity could compete with private providers (UPS and FedEx). Given the multi-billion deficit the post office runs – among other concerns – I am not sure if this example was helpful.
    There is more going on here than internet-driven fear mongering. It would be wise to listen to and understand what is behind the anger expressed by the guy in PA … for example … because not all of this is being staged.
    Lastly, the President cannot vote “present” on this issue – he needs to lead. If he clearly takes ownership of this issue, brings parties together and uses the bully pulpit of the Presidency, then healthcare reform can finally happen. This is what Profiles in Courage is all about. It’s Obama’s time.

  2. Liz Ward says:

    Hi Eric,
    Thank you for all your hard work on behalf of the elderly of our great nation. And THANK YOU for using your platform to speak the truth about health care reform – that it is critical to our nation’s success going forward, that it is going to help us all enjoy lower prices on healthcare, and it is going to give us more choice and better standards of care than we have now. My congressman said that despite the screaming mobs, the number of phone calls and emails he recieves is 10 to 1 in favor of Obama’s Health Care reform goals.
    While I think that moderate people who voted for Obama need to get more involved and make their voices heard, I also think the mobs on both sides need to exercise their sitting muscles a little more, along with their empathy and reason.

  3. Frank Ille says:

    Thank you for being a voice of reason on this topic.
    There is a lot of misinformation around this topic and it is amazing how many well educated people believe this garbage.
    I won’t even get started on Palin and Limbaughs idiocy.
    You are right on with the comments about:
    “more critical thinking, research the facts, speaking truth to internet friends who forward this garbage.”