Last night, I spent about an hour listening to a conference call on healthcare hosted by Congressman Mike Doyle. Residents throughout the district were invited to call in, and at one point, Doyle claimed 2,000 people were listening in. But in contrast to the town-hall fiascoes of recent weeks, the event was mostly -- and most reassurringly -- pretty dull.
This probably had something to do with the call screening going on: Residents were invited ask questions of Doyle, but they had to speak with an operator first. There were some obvious friendlies -- longtime Democratic activist Jonathan Robison was among the callers -- but also a few tough questions from doubters. Doyle was asked, for example, about whether healthcare reform would force people to have "end of life" conversations with their doctor. (Answer: no. The bill does allow such conversations to be reimbursed by insurance though -- as with many other kinds of consultation.) He also answered a question that, because of technical problems, barely got asked: Would reform mean illegal immigrants got covered. (Answer: no. Language in current legislation prohibits it.)
A couple takeaways from the event:
First of all, anyone who has ever thundered that "Those politicians in Washington don't even READ THE BILLS" should listen to Doyle talk. Whether you agree or disagree with his position on healthcare reform, you can't say he doesn't understand it. Doyle proved throughout the hour I listened that he is utterly conversant on this issue, and on the proposals on the floor.
Yeah, I know: It's the least we should expect from our elected officials. But I get weary of right wingers -- who frequently don't know what's actually in the legislation they're bitching about -- faulting anyone else for not studying it closely enough.
Second, the most interesting thing about Doyle's presentation -- at least to me -- was how often he stressed the ideas of choice and competition.
Here's a minute-long clip of Doyle doing so. As you'll hear, Doyle's argument is that the real point of reform is not to reduce choices -- certainly not to a government-only set-up -- but to expand them. Most insurance customers, he points out, live in markets that are either monopolies or duopolies. (Doyle contended that within his own Congressional district, roughly three-quarters of residents have Highmark as their insurance carrier. And almost all the rest of them have an insurance plan offered by UPMC.)
Doyle harped on this idea repeatedly, and you can see why. With opponents of healthcare reform denouncing it as "socialism," what better way to respond than touting competition -- that bedrock principle of American capitalism? Americans may hate change, but they love choice.
And besides, Doyle is right. Most of us might as well be living under socialism, for all the say we have over who insures us. Chances are that you're not picking who provides your insurance -- your employer is. And he or she may be making that choice with little concern for your needs and preferences.
So this is smart politics, for sure, and maybe smart policy as well. Still, I found myself chafing a bit as the call went on. At one point, a friendly caller asked Doyle whether there wasn't a moral argument here -- don't we have a moral obligation to ensure our neighbors can all get insurance? Doyle allowed briefly that this was so, at least as far as he was concerned ... but then he jumped back into arguing that insurance for all was a practical economic policy as well. It would save us money, see, because people could get preventive care rather than having to go into hospitals, etc.
All of that is true, of course. But I'd have perferred Doyle to make that moral case as well, to articulate this issue as being about the kind of people we wanted to be. To appeal to something a little deeper than our pocketbooks. Really, that's been part of my frustration with life in Barack Obama's Washington all along. Except in rare moments -- the eulogy for Edward Kennedy last weekend, his famous speech on race during the 2008 campaign -- Obama tends toward wonkishness. I don't want a sermon on every issue, necessarily, but let's face it: Obama's rivals are talking about Armageddon, while Democrats are futzing around with actuarial tables.
There's more activity planned around healthcare in the future -- a "Health Insurance Reform Now" bus tour will be stopping here tomorrow. And I think there's a good champion of it representing Pennsylvania's 14th district. I just hope that going forward, we hear some talk about the soul as well as the body.