Health Care Protests and the Hidden Trap of Me-First Politics

This quotation from Reverend Martin Niemoeller has been running through my mind recently, leaving me feeling vaguely uneasy:

In Germany, the Nazis first came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, but I didn’t speak up because I was a protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak for me.

And no, I am not thinking of the U.S. government – that big, bad bogeyman of the radical right. I am thinking of the corporate giants and their hired help, those corrupt politicians in Washington. How slick they are, how deft at dividing and ruling the gullible public. They have succeeded in convincing a lot of Americans that to protect our “benefits” against a rapacious government, we must give “free enterprise” the keys to the treasury.

At noon yesterday, thousands of protesters besieged the offices of their elected representatives all across the land in a continuing effort to block health care reform legislation. Similar protests are planned throughout the current Congressional recess. The campaign is an extension of recent “town hall” demonstrations that blind-sided lawmakers returning to their constituencies.

Many of the “protesters” are fakes – bused in by PR firms to create an impression of grassroots opposition to the President’s initiative. And many are perennial protesters venting unrelated resentments, such as opposition to any and all taxation, or the desire for a society dominated by the “white race.” But some are genuinely concerned citizens whose fears have been exploited by a clever propaganda campaign.

healthSifting through their concerns, I see a common theme emerging. A lot of people are worried about losing the benefits they now have. The fact is that most Americans have some kind of health insurance, either through their employers, or through government programs like the VA and Medicare. And they don’t see how the government can cover 46 million more people without taking something from those of us who are already insured.

Some of the people on Medicare, for example, fear that in order to fund extended health insurance coverage, cuts will have to made in that program. One area that might be vulnerable is Medicare Part D, which somehow morphed into a fuzzy concoction called Medicare Advantage. I am not sure how it works, but in my case I used to have to pay a premium to get “supplemental” insurance that covered most of the bills left unpaid by Medicare itself. I think Medicare pays about 80 percent of hospital bills, for example. Now, a private insurer called Quality Health Plans takes care of the portion that Medicare leaves unpaid – or the bulk of it anyway. I pay QHP no monthly premium and I don’t even make co-payments on generic prescriptions or doctor visits.

Apparently this is possible because President Bush and the Republicans gave the insurance industry a blank check and tacked the bill on to the national deficit. With President Obama pledging to make any new national health insurance program pay its way, some old folks see that free – or nearly free – ride coming to an end. And a lot of them are not happy about that.

The way I see it, old folks aren’t worried about the deficit. We won’t be around to pay it off, anyway. And no sane person really believes some bureaucrat will disconnect their life-support equipment. Very few really believe the President is a Nazi or that Sarah Palin’s special-needs kid is in any danger. And what does it matter to us if Medicare goes broke after we’re dead?

What really has old folks’ shorts in a knot is that the Medicare Advantage gravy train might be derailed. It’s me-first politics, plain and simple. Let the profiteers plunder the system. Let the uninsured go to emergency rooms, or apply for Medicaid, or line up for treatment at some charity-run clinic, or whatever.

The trouble with that kind of thinking is that societies tend to collapse when the various segments seek only their own interests. If the corporations win this one, what’s to stop them jacking up the co-payments and deductibles under Medicare Advantage? What’s to prevent them from ratcheting up premiums for employer provided plans?

If you think the industry is abusive now, just wait until they beat back Obama’s attempt at reining them in.