Friday, June 19, 2009

Empathy, Conservatives and Health Care Reform

There has been an interesting exchange between Freddie deBoer and Mark Thompson over at League of Ordinary Gentlemen on how conservatives approach health care reform. It's been fascinating because I think it explains why the conservative arguments against major change doesn't ring very true to the larger public.

I don't always agree with Freddie, but this has been on of the few times that he is very spot on. He notes:

...many conservative blogs, from all the various strata of the ideology, have been doing a very poor job of frankly acknowledging the enormous amount of human suffering our health care system causes.

There are very many people, in this country, who need health care and are unable to get it, because of their financial or employment situations. This is a fact, and it is unavoidable. The number of people so afflicted is a matter of great controversy. A great amount of virtual ink has flowed for the purpose of taking shots at the various quoted figures of the uninsured and the underinsured. And who can say, exactly. But it is a great many people. It is millions; even the most rabid partisan must acknowledge that millions of people in this country lack adequate health care coverage. Millions of people, in the country with the most powerful economy in the history of the world, cannot access desperately needed health care because they can’t afford to.

Our system leaves people suffering. Americans, today, don’t go to the doctor because they can’t afford to, though they are in pain, often debilitating pain. Our system leaves people in financial ruin. Those who are uninsured or underinsured and face major medical conditions are often left with bills that leave them destitute, bankrupt, or both. The numbers, again, are controversial. Whatever they are, they are again real, and again large. Our system also kills people. Prevention and early diagnosis are the foundations of Western medicine. People don’t go to the doctor, when they can’t afford it, and they don’t get early diagnosis, they don’t get early intervention, and they don’t get help until it is too late to avoid permanent injury or death.

When conservatives talk about health care, we tend to focus on the free market and fears of government control. Now these concerns do have some legitamacy to them, but they also lack something...empathy.

Empathy has caused a lot of snickers among conservatives lately, ever since President Obama said he wanted a Supreme Court justice that exhibited empathy. Many conservatives attacked the statement saying that one doesn't need empathy to be a good justice. Maybe, but that's another issue.

When it comes to health care, conservatives also seem to not see the importance of empathy in the same way that liberals do. Mark Thompson gives an example:

For years, whenever you see a Dem or liberal discussing the health care issue, they almost always begin with an acknowledgement of the problem – the “57 million Americans are uninsured” refrain, or perhaps a story of someone who died as a result of lack of treatment or because they couldn’t get their insurance company to pay for treatment. These stories and statistics tug at the heart strings, but more importantly they make people care about the issue because they make the issue relatable to those people, making them think “that could be me,” or in many cases “that is me.” As importantly, they give the listener the impression that what follows is a good faith proposal to solve that problem, not some half-assed proposal that’s really intended to advance a broader ideological agenda.

When you hear a conservative or libertarian speaking about the issue, though, you rarely get an acknowledgement of the problem. Instead, you may get a set of objections to the Dem proposal (usually including a rant about “socialized medicine”) or a statement that the free market solution is the better solution or some discussion of the areas of our health care system that are not the problem and that must be preserved and defended.

The liberal argument for health care reform is based on emotion and it works. I'm hardly rooting for a single-payer system, but I know what it means to be without healthcare, and as I've stated earlier, I know what it is to be sick and without health care. Democrats may have the wrong perscription to solve the issue, but at least the seem to care.

That's not what I find when I listen to fellow conservatives. There is no talk about what it might mean to not have health care or to have your benefits cut, or to deal with the rising cost of perscription drugs. As Mark notes, there is some talk about "socialized medicine" and how the US has the best health care system in the world and how we should focus on free market solutions.There is no talk about people's fears or concerns about this issue.

My own concerns for health care reform stem from my own life. I was a sickly kid growing up. I had asthma attacks on a regular basis, and have many allergies. Luckily, my parents had health insurance to pay for all the problems I had. As I grew into a young adult, I then dealt with clinical depression, which has me on antidepressants and a recent diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism, which has me seeing a psychologist.

The long and the short of it, is that I've had some experience with the health care system. As an adult, I've gone through periods without health insurance. Just because I don't have health care doesn't mean those illnesses stop. I've gone though periods where I've had to decide to not take a certain drug because without insurance it was to damn expensive.

Health care reform for me isn't just an exercise in ideology; it is a real issue for me. Like any Republican, I have my druthers on having some kind of Canadian-style system, but that doesn't mean that I don't think this is an issue that the government has to have a role in. No parent should have to worry about whether they can take care of their kid who is having trouble breathing and wondering if they can pay for it.

What this comes down to is that conservatives and Republicans are going to have to let down their ideological blinders a bit and actually start to listen to people's concerns. Mind you, conservatives our not alone in allowing their ideology to cloud their vision. As Mark Thompson notes, liberals have similar blinders when it comes to public education, closing their eyes to charter schools and vouchers, even when schools are failing.

I don't know if conservatives are going to allow themselves a bit of empathy on this issue, but it might do them a bit of good.

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