Monday, August 24, 2009

Easily Conned?

Last Friday I traded in our ancient minivan to buy a new SUV under the highly popular "Cash for Clunkers" program.

As I was signing the final papers, the manager at the GM dealership lamented the bureaucratic wringer and technical glitches that have plagued the program. The government website (for uploading claims) would remain unavailable or keep crashing. Paperwork was tedious and claims were rejected for trivial reasons. Four weeks after filing the first claims the dealership had yet to receive any money.

"The government messes up everything, and now it's trying to take over our health care," said the auto manager. I asked him what he thought of the public option, and he said he is dead set against it.

That stopped me short. Here was someone who was (a) not a health provider or insurer, (b) not a $250K+ earner who would see taxes hiked up, and (c) not a lawmaker (Republican or Blue Dog Democrat) bribed by the industry to safeguard its interests. Moreover, he is in the business of selling new and used cars. That's someone who should be savvy enough to tell facts from fiction.

Yet even he swallowed the industry claims and counter-arguments against reform. He objected to the public option because his employer may then drop his private insurance (why should it matter if the public plan is better, or he can still see the same doctors?) When asked about the popular Medicare for seniors, and why not offer it to all Americans, he said Medicare will be out of funds (if it's cheaper, the funding is just a matter of allocating enough to it.)

This underscores just how easy it can be for reform opponents to confuse (or sucker) the average Joe about changes to the system. The Obama administration certainly hasn't helped with its mixed and conflicting messages on its commitment to the public option.

It doesn't have to be this way. Here's a link I received from Jonathan Starr of an MSNBC "Morning Joe" discussion between Republican host Joe Scarborough and Congressman Anthony Weiner (D - NY). Weiner advocates a single payer system and his logic for it even gets Scarborough (to his credit) thinking hard and admitting he's impressed "and speechless." Why isn't Mr. Obama making this case?

Paul Krugman has criticized Obama in today's Op-Ed in The Times. He also repeats that "Reaganomics has failed to deliver what it promised, yet people still believe that government intervention is bad, and leaving the private sector to its own devices is good."

A remarkable national survey result also shows that a majority of Americans believe most of the 19 myths floated by reform opponents.

Republicans also have some (a few, I wish they had more) good ideas on health reforms that are being ignored by Democrats. Chief among these is the need for malpractice reforms. It may bring down some health care costs, or at least remove one major reason (or excuse) advanced by providers for high costs.

Then there are reforms that neither party stresses, like vastly expanding the supply of doctors and other providers, and curbing hospital market power. A reason reforms are so difficult is that each interest group has powerful leverage and lawmakers protecting them. Strong public demand can pressure the politicians to do the right thing. For this to happen President Obama needs to stop being so passive and overlearning from the Clintons' 1993 experience. He should instead imagine how Hillary would act now if she were in his place.

And Americans like my auto dealer need to better judge industry claims.

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