Congress slowed down; Now let’s have the thoughtful debate about health reform

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By Consumers Union on Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Congress was urged to slow down and engage in some thoughtful debate about health reform during August recess. It did slow down, but we haven’t exactly had the thoughtful debate yet. As the media and blogosphere reports, it’s almost impossible right now for our leaders to engage in a calm, intelligent conversation with Americans about one of the most important pieces of legislation that will go through Congress this year.

The Washington Post reports on the melees, outbursts and organized disruptions occurring at town hall meetings to discuss healthcare that are “threatening to drown out any health-care debate.”

The reported outburst over health reform include an effigy of freshman Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D) that was hanged from a noose outside his district office. A death telephone death threat against Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) because he was not holding town halls. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) mobbed by about 200 people with signs calling Doggett a “traitor to Texas” and a “devil to all people.” And Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who just announced he has prostate cancer, being shouted at an event: “How come we don’t just give Chris Dodd painkillers? Like a handful of them at a time. We can flush it down with Ted Kennedy’s whiskey.”

The Post and other media outlets have reported that “several conservative groups have taken the lead in organizing opposition around the country, including some that are new on the political scene or have been created as offshoots of more established groups. ”

The Post reports that these groups include: Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, headed by Rick Scott, the controversial former chief executive of the HCA/Columbia hospitals firm who now runs a chain of walk-in clinics in Florida. Americans for Prosperity, “a self-proclaimed grass-roots organization that is perhaps best known for opposing smoking restrictions and raising doubts about the validity of global warming.” And FreedomWorks, an advocacy group led by former Rep. Dick Armey, “which distributes a ‘Healthcare Action Kit’ for protesters who want to attend town hall meetings. Props include an ‘ObamaCare Insurance Card; with the slogan: A collective plan administered by the politicians and bureaucrats of the U.S. government.’ ”

Supporters of health reform are working just as hard to get their folks mobilized, and as the Post reports, are spending large sums to do so, just like the opposition. To date, more than $52 million has been spent by both sides on health-care reform ads, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

All the manufactured noise makes it nearly impossible for either side to get heard. Those with legitimate concerns and fears about reform need to have their questions answered, and not just rely on rumors and fearmongering. And those who want health reform need to understand what it will do for them — whether it will help them get more affordable coverage, and how much it may cost.

AARP just released a “Myths vs. Facts” document which you can download here to get some answers to questions, or clear up rumors or misconceptions about health reform. Or you can read Consumer Reports look at the five most common myths about health reform, and the realities behind them.

We should all use this August break to get informed on what health reform really means. As Consumers Union’s DeAnn Friedholm suggests we should look to Thomas Jefferson for a little advice on handling this August “debate” period: “If we’re going to have a successful democratic society,” Jefferson once said, “we have to have a well educated and healthy citizenry.”

As a long time participant in the dance of public policy,” Friedholm says, “I actually love the idea of an August in which Americans spend time really reading, listening, thinking, discussing and debating the key parts of the health reforms being developed in Congress. Imagine each evening, you could watch programs and webinars where detailed explanations lay out exactly what is – and what is not – in the House bill or Senate bill, with time for questions to clarify and illuminate.

Imagine if we had publicly broadcast debates – honest-to-goodness structured debates — between proponents and opponents of the major elements. And local town halls where the impact on your community would be explained – what will it mean for your local hospital? It could be a major turning point for health reform and a step toward regaining civility in our participatory democracy. An informed society.

However, experience tells us something entirely different will happen. Experience tells us we will be subjected to endless ads spreading fear and misinformation, plus a steady stream of talking heads on TV and radio, interested in generating heat, not light. Will it end up killing health reform? Will we re-live August of 1993? Instead of missing the opportunity, what if, for once, we made Thomas Jefferson proud?”

So far, it doesn’t look like Mr. Jefferson would be very proud of our healthcare debate. Let’s hope that changes in the coming weeks.

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