National / News / March 4, 2010

Obamacare and the partisan summit

Last week was a climax in the ongoing debate on healthcare reform. On Monday, President Barack Obama released his long awaited health care proposal (dubbed “Obamacare”) on the White House website for all to see. That same Thursday, the President hosted a seven-hour summit on healthcare in which Republicans and Democrats went back and forth on several issues.

The 11-page proposal, accompanied by a Q&A on the Web site, touches areas such as expanding coverage, ending discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions and affordability and accountability of insurance companies. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has deemed that this plan will reduce the Federal deficit by $100 billion in the next 10 years and $1 trillion in the decade after that. Other independent groups such as the nonpartisan Lewin group agree.

The summit was bombarded with political rhetoric. Many senators and representatives joked about how well they behaved when they were in front of the cameras. The objectives of the summit were to address cost control, deficit reduction, insurance reform and expanding coverage. Instead it turned into a debate on the legitimacy of the CBO’s findings, the removal of reconciliation and whether or not the proposal should be scrapped. Obama made sure that everyone attending got a chance to speak, with an emphasis on Republicans responding to what Democrats said.

Both parties agreed on some issues but disagreed on the individual mandate, how the bill affects the deficit and whether the federal government or the free market could control premium increases better (an ideological difference between the two parties).

Republicans came in with critiques but not a plan of their own, something Knox political science professor Duane Oldfield predicted the day before the summit.

“If [Republicans] put out a specific alternative, it’s open to more criticism,” he said.

The Republicans came in trying to dispel the image as the “party of no” by urging that what both parties agreed on should be passed. Democrats contended that small changes would not get the work done adequately.

“Baby steps don’t get you to the place where people need to go,” Obama said.

A clause in the proposed mandate requires all citizens to have health insurance.

“The more people in the [health insurance] pool, the less it’s going to cost for everybody,” said Senator Tom Harkin.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, a former health insurance salesman, explained the workings of the industry.

“They are looking for reasons to kick you out,” he said. Right now, they can do so legally. According to Rockefeller, insurance companies are “shark[s] swimm[ing] just below the surface,” with no oversight, no anti-trust laws and no real competition.

Vice President Joe Biden addressed the issue of whether the free market or the federal government was better suited to lower prices, recounting the debate on Medicare Advantage in 1997. Back then it was decided that the free market could handle the premiums better than the federal government, and prices subsequently went up. Biden added that this was the “same philosophical debate of the 30’s” on the New Deal.

Representative Paul Ryan called the plan “smoke and mirrors” and contested the CBO’s findings on the impact Obama’s plan would have on the deficit. He said the plan contained much “double counting” but Obama countered with the independent Lewin group, which agrees with the CBO’s results.

Overall, Republicans focused on criticizing backroom deals and the possible usage of reconciliation to bypass a filibuster. They suggested the American people were not happy with the plan and encouraged passing what both parties agreed on and scrapping the rest.

The Republican healthcare plan “looks a lot like Romney’s plan from Massachusets [or the] Republican alternative when Clinton was trying to get a healthcare plan,” said Oldfield.

What do Republicans and Democrats agree on? Expanding coverage? Yes, but they have different methods. Buying across state lines? Yes, but Democrats want federal minimum requirements on what must be covered by insurance companies (CNN has found that buying across state lines without any change on coverage will only save a couple hundred dollars). Whether or not the U.S. has the best healthcare in the world?

Statistically, the country that could be one of the best (“best” defined as paying less and getting more) is Australia, which spends $1,646 on healthcare per capita and has a health index of 12.0. Comparatively, the US spends $2,429 per capita and has a health index of 2 (Harold Wilenski, “U.S. Health Care and Real Health in Comparative Perspective: Lessons from Abroad”). In the case of having the best medical staff of the world, France, England and Cuba trump the U.S., according to a New York Times editorial in 2007 titled “World’s Best Medical Care?”

The other “agreements” are likely to still lead to debate.

The last talking point, “American Public Opinion,” involves contradictory opinions on both sides.

“I think it requires a little bit of humility to be able to know what the American people think and I don’t. I can’t swear I do. I know what I think. I think I know what they think, but I’m not sure what they think,” said Biden.

“The American people have spoken: they want us to scrap the Democrats’ healthcare bill and start over,” said Republican John Boehner.

But which party is right? What are people hearing?

Other than the political rhetoric from both sides mentioned earlier, the media has played a big role in shaping public opinion. When asked whether or not the media has reported the reform process responsibly, Oldfield said “probably no” and that they are mostly “focusing on the horserace,” partly because it was what most Americans wanted to see.

It was not surprising when, shortly after the summit, news stations like CNN and Fox News calculated the number of minutes spoken by each side. According to Fox, Democrats spoke for 114 minutes, Republicans for 110, and Obama for 119 minutes. They failed to mention that Obama made it more important for Republicans to have a chance to refute Democrats.

The graph titled “Media Coverage of Reform,” conducted from Nov. 5 to Nov. 12, 2009, shows a disparity between the amount of ads on politics versus the amount on policy reform or even both. Fifty percent of those polled have seen commercials just on the politics of reform. Do the majority of Americans even have a concrete idea on what is being proposed to form a knowledgeable opinion? How many can honestly say they’ve read Obama’s healthcare proposal or watched the summit (rather than the clips TV stations show)?

Considering the influence of the media, the amount of public knowledge and a heavy political fight, is healthcare reform possible? Go to to read the 11-page proposal to learn more.

Rana Tahir
Rana Tahir is a political columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering international issues. She will graduate in June 2013 with degrees in political science and creative writing, after which she will attend the University of Denver's publishing institute.

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