Anxiety and Paranoia over Health Care

It is clearly a cynical attempt to manipulate public opinion, the idea that Obama is proposing “Death Panels” to determine whether or not grandma should be forced to die. But why has it caught on and fueled such angry protests?

Much of these enthusiastic lies and distortions comes from the far right, who are desperate to hand Obama a defeat. For them, the public’s interest in having improved medical care – much less a rational debate on the subject – is far outweighed by their partisan fear that their own political survival is at risk if the plan is not defeated. Over a week ago, The Times pointed out that the extreme, unfounded rumors “had a mainstream provenance, openly emanating months ago from many of the same pundits and conservative media outlets that were central in defeating President Bill Clinton’s health care proposals 16 years ago.” (See “False ‘Death Panel’ Rumor Has Some Familiar Roots.”)

And it seems to be working among Republicans, as Charles Blow notes in today’s Times: “According to an NBC News poll released this week, 76 percent of Republicans believe that the health care plan will lead to a government takeover of the health care system; 70 percent believe it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly; and 61 percent believe it will allow the use of taxpayer dollars for abortions.” (See “Masters and Slaves of Deception.”)

The Republicans are more prone to such fearful fantasies because of their hatred of big government. But it may not just be Republican paranoia that is barging into this debate. We are all anxious about the fact that health care is what holds the line between life and death – and it is that ever-present anxiety that makes us all somewhat vulnerable to these scare tactics.

There is not enough money to provide all the health care everyone wants. Cost are already spiraling out of control, and as many sober voices have pointed out, even the best plans will require some form of rationing. But the fact is that we actually have “rationing” now in the form of a crazy quilt of unequally distributed services: there are those who have no coverage at all, or have lost their coverage, or are denied it because of a pre-existing condition or because the paperwork keeps getting turned back, and then there are those who can’t afford their medications, who are covered under one policy but then not under another, or can’t get to a doctor because they are infirm, who wait too long because they are scared or mistrustful. The question is whether we will have a more rational system or the lottery we have now.

But, then, lots of people like lotteries. At least you can think you have a chance to win. Uncertainty keeps hope alive, and the rare winners fuel the fantasies of the many losers. Maybe you’ll be lucky and won’t get sick, or find a hospital that won’t turn you away. Maybe you’ll get what you need.