Columns » Max Brantley

What the Huck?

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It's a given that health care reform is political poison. But even Republicans have said elements of it have merit.

For example, one Republican alternative would have made it illegal to deny insurance coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions.

So it was somewhat surprising when Mike Huckabee tore into this part of the law Saturday at the Value Voters Summit — a Washington cattle call for the Religious Right and other extremists:

"It sounds so good, and it's such a warm message to say we're not gonna deny anyone from a preexisting condition," Huckabee said. "Look, I think that sounds terrific, but I want to ask you something from a common sense perspective. Suppose we applied that principle [to] our property insurance. And you can call your insurance agent and say, 'I'd like to buy some insurance for my house.' He'd say, 'Tell me about your house.' 'Well sir, it burned down yesterday, but I'd like to insure it today.' And he'll say 'I'm sorry, but we can't insure it after it's already burned.' Well, no preexisting conditions."

It was classic Huckstering, worth a quick chuckle only if you didn't listen very closely.

The health care legislation includes mandated coverage so that people will have insurance before they get sick. A bigger pool of insured will spread the cost of treatment over more people and hold costs down. Plus, comparing people with pre-existing medical conditions to burned houses (or wrecked cars, which Huckabee also did) is just wrong.

As a Little Rock lawyer observed on our Arkansas Blog, "Gov. Huckabee's analogy fails because health insurance — even when it applies to pre-existing conditions — is an agreement to reimburse for or pay medical costs incurred in the future. It is not at all like insuring a house that has already burned down, an event that has already occurred." If you insure a child with asthma, you're not providing reimbursement for asthma, you're buying coverage for possible costs of a future asthma attack.

Children's needs are important because, beginning this week, insurance companies are no longer able to deny coverage for kids based on pre-existing conditions. The prohibition extends to all by 2014. Some polling shows that majority opposition to health care reform falls apart when respondents learn repeal would cancel this significant advancement.

And yet there was Huckabee, aiming straight at one of the most popular parts of the bill.

Maybe it was just the old Rove strategy of attacking an opponent's strength. So far, Huckabee's lame analogy has won him nearly universal condemnation on the web (though, oddly, hardly a mention in Arkansas news coverage.) Many commentators found it a particularly callous position from a former preacher. Rick Ungar of Forbes wrote that "Huckabee's remarks today, dripping with sarcasm and lacking feeling for Americans with serious medical challenges, are far from befitting a man who not only seeks to be a national leader but presumes to minister the Word of God."

Huckabee has acknowledged his propensity to push a metaphor or joke too far. But this wasn't about cow flatulence; it was about life and death.

The effect of Mike Huckabee's message couldn't be clearer. Those who can't afford health coverage — the child born with a grave medical problem, the woman whose breast cancer recurs after a period of remission — can just die. No death panel required. Welcome to "values," circa 2010.

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