Obama plays the Medicare card

President Obama, with Vice President Biden and Speaker Pelosi behind him, delivers a joint address to Congress on September 9 (Alex Wong/Getty)

President Obama, with Vice President Biden and Speaker Pelosi behind him, delivers a joint address to Congress on September 9 (Alex Wong/Getty)

For almost anyone over 50, the central issue of health care boils quickly down to Medicare. Will I keep it? Will it be there when I need it? Will it change?

In his address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night, President Obama looked straight at the camera while saying he wanted “to speak directly to seniors: Medicare has been here for four decades, and is a sacred trust that must be passed down” to future generations. Then he pointed out to those seniors that the legislators opposing his reform plan are the same “folks who voted against Medicare in the beginning” and this year voted for a budget that would privatize it. He said also that much of the plan will be paid for by reducing waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid. Anybody who’s had (and thank you, I have) Medicare coverage for more than 15 minutes knows about waste and inefficiency. So cut those, and leave the system, and we should all be happy.

We should all be happy, that is, if such care extends to everyone. And if Mr. Obama’s references to the U.S. being the only developed country that lets its citizens suffer daily for want of adequate health care didn’t communicate the moral wrong that reform will attempt to right, you weren’t listening. What we heard was outline, and the president’s throw-away line about a few details yet to be worked out got an expected congregational chuckle. Some of us are more optimistic than others about whether any substantive change for the common good will remain by the time the final bill is drawn.

The details are ahead for the devil to be in, and he/she is surely ready. Whether public support will be forthcoming seems likely to boil down to a whom-to-believe game. Obama repeatedly stressed that “nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.” But in delivering the Republican response immediately after the speech, Representative Charles Boustany of Louisiana promised listeners that they would be in for “replacing your family’s current plan with government-sponsored healthcare.” Boustany also tossed in references to “rationing care” and to general “fear and anxiety,” giving a distinct impression that battle lines are still drawn.

About those battle lines: Republicans sat on their hands as Obama once again proclaimed the rumors about bureaucrats who would kill off senior citizens — he skipped dignifying Sarah Palin by using the death-panel words — to be “lies, plain and simple.” And although he got the other side of the aisle to stand when he insisted there must be reform of medical malpractice laws, there were no smiles when he pointed out that the cost of health reform will be less than the tax breaks for wealthiest Americans passed during the previous administration.

Somehow, what truths and certainties do exist must be kept alive in the fray: Medicare is not going away. End-of-life conversations won’t kill off grandma. (Sadly, this provision may be already dead anyway.) The plan’s not going to cover illegal immigrants or pay for abortions. Medical malpractice laws must be reformed. Nothing will adequately replace the public option. A health care plan that offers access to all, imperfect or not, is only common decency.

This senior’s trust is still in Barack Obama.

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