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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

February 8th, 2010 1:10 PM

Reframe the Debate: Make Congressional Members Claim Their Dead

Ah, the politics of it all. Healthcare reform may or may not pass through the 111th Congress. President Obama may or may not be successful in crafting further concessions to a Senate or House version of health reform that he dubbed “health insurance reform” in order to step away from any appearance of a deeper government role in the debate or in the final product. But who will claim the dead?

As they debate and now gather for more push-me-pull-me meetings, more Americans will die waiting for healthcare. 124 every day, according to a Harvard study oft quoted by President Obama. Those who will die later today and tomorrow and every day thereafter aren’t playing politics and their deaths are the direct result of bi-partisan failure to stop the killing.

The debate needs to be about the dead and how to prevent more from dying. Reframe and reclaim this debate for them – not for political gain.

Republicans and Democrats will join at the White House on February 25, 2010, to talk about it. In the meantime, the political strategists and media pundits who like to simultaneously influence public opinion and also then predict how successfully they have influenced public opinion will go into high wind trying to find out which political position will garner the highest ratings, listenership and readership and therefore sell the most ad time and space.

In the next 60 days, money will drive this agenda even more clearly than it has through the past year. If selling Sarah Palin and a potential candidacy in 2012 will create the most controversy and ad revenue for the media, then selling Sarah Palin it will be. If selling a dead Congressional effort on healthcare reform will make for a more lively election season in 2010 and therefore more ads to be bought and sold, then featuring the experts and opinions that will push public opinion to the “kill the bill” position will be the media effort.

President Obama must reframe the debate again – even at this late date – by asking all of those participants about claiming the dead in their own states and their own Congressional districts. (here’s the list, by state: http://pnhp.org/excessdeaths/excess-deaths-state-by-state.pdf) The costs of inaction on healthcare reform should not be measured in political wins and losses or ad revenue for a possible Palin candidacy. The costs of leaving this broken U.S. healthcare system in place should be counted in human loss and human suffering.

Let’s say this Congress opts to leave the mess in the hands of the for-profit, private insurance companies. Because they all know the figures and because they all know the causes, every single Congressional member and every single elected official must own their full measure of responsibility. Just like flag-draped coffins of the war dead remind us of the terrible costs of foreign war, so too should the fallen of this U.S. healthcare battle be seen and remembered and their deaths not have been without meaning.

So, when Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut grins in smug confidence that he has won a point against health reform, let him be face to face with the 318 families in Connecticut who buried a family member last year who lacked access to healthcare. Let John Boehner of Ohio see the 1,463 faces of the dead from Ohio who might have been saved if Congress acted this year. Or how about the 220 Iowans dead from Sen. Grassley’s state? The 1,626 dead from Illinois? President Obama’s home state. Most of these folks had no recognition or even had many people acknowledge their passing; many were scooped into pauper’s graves, like so much trash. Human collateral damage of a healthcare reform debate that has lost its bearings.

From my perspective, if President Obama wants to frame this moment in its proper context, he should own his campaign assertion that healthcare is a basic human right. He ought to own the numbers of dead and ask all with whom he meets to own their measure of the responsibility for those dead – not the political fallout, the very real human suffering. The preventable human suffering of good and decent citizens for whom no one in this current debate advocates with clarity over their own political motivations.

How can we bring this debate back from the ridiculous to the reality? From the political brink to the human? We can do it by honoring what we know to be the truth. Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

Even if this President cannot in this moment reclaim that which he knows is the only way to secure true universality of care – a progressively financed, single standard of high quality care for all – then he must reclaim the moral authority with which he began this fight. He knows what is true. Omission will not make it less so.

No matter the political outcome, we must not minimize the stakes. To fail to act for another Congressional cycle would cost nearly 100,000 lives. To fail to act for another generation would mean that more than 1 million Americans would perish at the hands of Republican, Democratic and Independent inaction in 2009-2010. That is a lot of death to own for each and every one of them.

We should demand that they all claim their dead as a preface to their actions. 124 people across the nation died preventable deaths today. And by the time February 25th arrives, when the Republicans will meet with the Democrats to discuss whether or not they can agree on any healthcare reform, 2,108 will have died very real, but preventable deaths.

Perhaps they might begin their deliberations on February 25th with a moment of silence for the fallen Americans of the healthcare crisis? Silence for the dead Republicans without healthcare. Silence for the dead Democrats without healthcare. Silence for the dead Independents without healthcare. Dead Americans, one and all. Silence for them all.

And they must ask themselves if each provision, each step, brings us closer to ending the killing or masks the collection of data for a few more years as the dying continues. Reform healthcare. Greed should die, not people, in a U.S. healthcare system that values human life.

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