What if all the hysteria over health-care reform isn't about health care at all? What if it's more a deep-seated fear of government interference in our lives?
It's the $64,000 question, isn't it?
So that you know where I'm coming from, I do not have an inherent mistrust of government. I do not buy into the "death panels" frenzy, nor do I think that access to health care can be strictly left to the private sector.
But listening to Mike Leavitt speak last week gave me new insight into the political realities of reform and the visceral, gut reaction many Americans have to the whole affair.
Leavitt, former secretary of Health and Human Services, addressing the National Conference of Editorial Writers, spoke about his great optimism when he became the head of the agency under former President George W. Bush. As such, Leavitt had his hands on the steering wheel of the nation's largest health-care programs. He had designs on making the systems more efficient and cost-effective and improving the quality of care.
The problem was, 535 other people — members of Congress — also had their hands on the wheel, which made meaningful change next to impossible.
Take the agency's brief flirtation with a trial competitive bidding process on 10 durable medical goods in 10 cities. The demonstration project revealed huge savings could be achieved through this process, an average savings of 26 percent on the 10 items, with the cost savings as great as 43 percent on specific items.
But in a competitive bidding process, low bidders who meet the specifications win the contracts. The rest go away empty-handed. So they start complaining to their congressional representatives. And their industry representatives start pressuring members of Congress to pull the plug on the pilot project, which they did.
"I was, essentially, politically stoned," Leavitt said.
Never mind the folks who pay the tab to keep the government afloat and who would have appreciated the substantial savings the program could have achieved.
Leavitt, who was elected Utah governor three times, said he understands why so many Americans are wary of the health-care proposals coming down the pike. They don't like change in general, and they cannot see how they will benefit from these particular changes. And they don't understand how the government will pay for it.
Moreover, they just don't want government unnecessarily intervening in their lives. Take the heavy-equipment operator Leavitt met while he was Utah's governor. The man simply wanted to haul a backhoe to rural Utah to dig a ditch. Once government got involved, he had to get a commercial driver license, which meant he had to undergo random urine tests. He had to have a business license. He had to keep copious records on fuel consumption. All this to get work digging holes in the ground?
While it makes sense to regulate businesses, the man's experiences are the tip of the iceberg of what some people fear when government takes a larger role in their lives. Add to that the emotion of this particular issue — particularly among senior citizens, who are frequent users of the health-care system. People's fears can get the best of them.
Even those who trust that their elected officials will do what's best for them and their country are nervous about how much more reform would cost and how a nation that has a war brewing on two fronts and has only begun to dig itself out of the economic slump can afford to take on more. Meanwhile, the nation has been borrowing money like crazy from China for bailouts and stimulus packages. Anyone who balances a checkbook knows what happens when the outgoing funds outpace the receipts.
So yes, people are entitled to their concerns. They ought to be entitled to strong leadership from their elected officials on this issue.
Perhaps we need to replicate the model of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission to attack the health-care issue. That way, the end product would be one step removed from the partisan politics that seem to be the worst impediment to any forward momentum on health-care reform.
But that would require the members of Congress to cede power to an objective, nonpartisan and independent panel that would review and analyze the issue. Something tells me they're just not willing to do that.
Marjorie Cortez, who fears her future grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be saddled with finding solutions to the issues of health care, illegal immigration and Social Security, is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at [email protected]