Thu, Sep 03, 2009 - Page 9 News List

US healthcare reform needs a shot in the Left

It isn’t that the Right is organized on US healthcare reform, rather that the Left isn’t. But there’s still time to make amends

By Gary Younge  /  THE GUARDIAN

“We flood her voicemail,” Fox says. “We visit her, e-mail and get people to write her letters. She always knows we’re here. She does the right thing in the end. But we have to make her.”

Currently in the middle of 30 events in a 30-day spurt of activity, last week 75 people showed up to learn about campaigning, including how to peacefully deal with right-wing hecklers.

That is no minor feat. Central to derailing Obama’s reforms has been the high-profile disruption of town hall meetings by conservatives alleging, among other things, that universal healthcare would create death panels that could kill your grandmother.

Small in number but well organized, they captured the attention of the media. It is the silly season, and a lot of these people are quite silly. Like the “birthers” who insist that Obama was not born in the US, most of their claims are not only demonstrably false but downright daft. They have argued that if Steven Hawking were British he would be dead, even though Hawking is British and alive. They insist that under the British tax-funded National Health Service the state decides whether to “pull the plug on grandma.”

But life expectancy in the UK is higher than in the US, meaning that even with our supposed state-sponsored euthanasia our grannies still live longer than theirs. In a blend of the comic and the tragic one protester, who was hospitalized after he got into a fight at a town hall meeting in St Louis, had to have a whip-round to pay for his medical bill as he had no health insurance.

There are legitimate arguments, both philosophical and economic, against the proposed reforms. Antipathy toward government runs deep here, and the national debt was last week forecast to reach US$9 trillion. But that would be a case for different kinds of overhaul — not none.

Sooner or later something will have to be done about healthcare in the US. As a percentage of GDP the US spends twice as much on it as the UK, yet one in six aren’t even covered. According to government figures, life expectancy for women is lower than in Albania and infant mortality is higher than Cuba. This national disgrace conceals a regional outrage: Black infant mortality in Louisiana is on a par with Sri Lanka, while in the very city where the reforms will be decided, Washington, life expectancy is lower than the Gaza Strip.

The right-wing protesters are ridiculous, but that does not prevent them from being effective.

“It’s much easier to turn up at a meeting and yell,” Pearlmutter says, “than to propose something that works. Healthcare is complicated. Even within our own working group there are many different positions.”

The fact that the Right has diminished Obama’s chances does not mean they have boosted their own. An NBC poll shows that while only 41 percent support Obama’s proposals, 62 percent disapprove of the way the Republicans are handling it.

But those who complain that the Right’s intervention has been the work of coordinated activists rather than spontaneous individuals miss the point. The problem is not that the Right were organized but that — with a few exceptions like Durham — the Left has not been. At the very moment when he needed the “movement” that got him elected most, it appears to have largely stopped moving.

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