Columns » Ernest Dumas

A deadly delay



The worst thing that Congressman Mike Ross did for health-care reform is not the modest alteration in the legislation that his Blue Dogs forced in the Energy and Commerce Committee last week but delaying consideration of the bill until the fall.

In the absence of a specific plan, the insurance industry, Republicans and the other opponents of change have a free hand during the long congressional recess to expand their disinformation campaign to the limits — if there are limits. The Republican propaganda genius, Dr. Frank Luntz, crafted a beauty for them. It is already bringing down the once sky-high poll numbers for health-care reform.

Actually, the changes that Ross and his Blue Dog consorts on the Energy Committee negotiated did not weaken the bill as much as the liberal wing claimed, and they did not produce savings worth much boasting — about $10 billion a year if the Congressional Budget Office confirms them. Ross's constituents, or at least the long suffering among them, might not like the principal way he brought the savings about: making health insurance considerably more costly for the working poor, who are an unusually high quotient in his South Arkansas district.

The small businesses that Ross said were his major concern — more of them got exempted from the mandate to either provide insurance for their employees or pay a tax — will be major beneficiaries of health-care reform, even of the bill they were tailoring in his committee. When everyone is covered through the insurance exchanges, working for a small business will be a far more attractive option. Hey, they should consider this, too: there will be less pressure to unionize. Let them have card check; those fat union health benefits would hold no charm.

Fewer than one in every 150 taxpayers in Ross's district and in the rest of Arkansas earn enough to pay the small income tax surcharge that would finance fully half or more of the expanded coverage. As for the wealthy few who would pay the tax, their marginal tax rate is the lowest since America's entry in World War I, except for two brief periods, 1925-1929 and 1988-1992, when the top rate fell below 30 percent, and the health surtax wouldn't change that.

But all that is contrary to the disinformation spread across the land, through the Internet, TV commercials and Republican speeches, which is that the Democrats will drive up everyone's taxes, stifle small businesses, kill jobs and force people into government health pools where they can't choose their doctors, hospitals or the treatment they want.

Mike Ross was decent enough last week to say that one of the big lies spread about the legislation, that it would force low-income people who have no insurance into the government plan, was not true. If you were poor enough to qualify for the government subsidy you could use it to buy coverage from Blue Cross, Aetna or anyone else, including a state cooperative if one is ever created.

You will remember Frank Luntz as the father of “the death tax.” Republicans were despairing of ever repealing the 80-year tax on large estates. Luntz suggested the slogan “death tax,” which would lead people to believe that the government would tax away every widow's mite. It became the death tax and Congress voted in 2001 to phase it out in 2010.

In the spring, Luntz compiled a 28-page playbook for the Republicans to defeat health-care reform. It was based on extensive polling and instant-response dial sessions to determine words that turned voters either on or off.  Luntz began with the warning never to say you're against changing the health-care system because Americans badly wanted change. You were not to attack President Obama but “Democrats” and “the government.”

No matter what the bills actually turn out to say, make the debate about government “takeover,” people losing their right to make choices about their treatment, government replacing family doctors in decisions about the right treatment. The highest response of people (58.3 percent) was to the statement: “Decisions about my healthcare should be between me and my doctor and no one else.” Craft commercials that say that.

Watch the ads and watch the statements of Republican leaders, which adopt Luntz's language precisely. They imply that the health-care bills would substitute the government in basic medical decisions although no bill being considered on the hill would do that. Your doctor will tell you that insurance company clerks make the decisions now.

All sorts of Internet analyses of one or another of the bills, particularly the House bill, purport to analyze legislation in detail and pick out random phrases that they suggest would produce a ruthless system of heartless government supervision of human suffering.

You just hope that the American people can see through it.  The recent record isn't encouraging.


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