Sometimes, the little things tell you a lot. Here’s one example:
Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid supposedly said that he didn’t really care whether the shutdown of the National Institutes of Health meant that some child afflicted with cancer might be denied treatment at an NIH facility. It was an egregious distortion of Reid’s statement, but politics being what it is these days, it became instant fodder for the outrage machine.
The Drudge Report and other conservative websites highlighted it. Fox News delighted in it. FreedomWorks, the corporate arm of the Tea Party, incorporated it into its fundraising appeals under the headline “Harry Reid: No help for cancer kids”. “How out of touch and heartless can Senate Democrats be?” the National Republican Senatorial Committee asked.
And not to be outdone, Sean Hannity called Reid “a sick, twisted old man … cold, callous, heartless, mean-spirited, hateful.”
Let’s take a step back and think about this. Let’s pretend that Reid actually did say and mean what he is accused of saying. If I understand it correctly, conservatives are taking the stance that it is sick and twisted to deny government-funded health care to an imaginary child afflicted with cancer. Do I have that right?
Interesting. Well, under budget cuts that President Obama and his fellow Democrats have begged the Republicans to reconsider, the NIH has been forced to slash $1.7 billion from its 2013 budget. Because of that cutback, it was forced to cancel 700 grants to scientists doing cutting-edge research work into disease. It also was forced to deny some 750 real-life, actual patients the right to be admitted to the NIH Clinical Center.
So, if it is “sick and twisted” to deny treatment to one cancer patient, as Reid allegedly is prepared to do, what do you say of a party that denies such treatment to 750 such people? (In 2014, the cutbacks to patient care at NIH will be even more profound.)
And of course, even that doesn’t begin to plumb the true depths of hypocrisy. While conservatives accuse Reid of callous heartlessness by denying government-funded health care to a single imaginary kid with cancer, they are battling to deny health insurance to 30 million of our fellow Americans. In Georgia alone, Gov. Nathan Deal has refused to extend Medicaid coverage to 650,000 lower-income Georgians, and state officials are doing everything they can to ensure that as few Georgians as possible take advantage of other aspects of the program.
How many of those 650,000, including children, might have cancer or other life-threatening illnesses that are going undetected and untreated because they can’t afford a simple checkup? Apparently, the outrage on the right is driven by some Stalinesque logic that one patient denied government health care is a politically usable tragedy, while 30 million denied health care is a mere statistic.
Myself, I don’t think of those 30 million that way.
Again, the incident itself is relatively minor, but it highlights the central dilemma in our debate over health care. Nobody wants to deny medical care to those who need it. We instinctively shrink from doing so, which is why Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1986 making it illegal to deny care in emergency rooms.
The question is whether that instinctive sense of responsibility for each other has any real meaning, or whether it’s an occasional thing that we use to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, and at times to bash each other.