In Sickness and in Health

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Posted September 24, 2009 in Feature Story

As the Health Care Wars have heated up over the summer it’s seemed at times as if Southern California was simply too hot, too fire-ravaged and perhaps too complacent to engage in the street theater going on around the country. Where have our surreal and somewhat scary health-related incidents gone?

 

After the recent incident in Thousand Oaks where a pro-reform supporter was punched by a man and then responded to the assault by biting off the tip of his assailant’s pinkie, it’s safe to assume the gloves are off.

 

Luckily nothing this extreme has gone down in the Inland Empire—not yet at least. But a closer look revealed that diehard activism has pitted itself against dirty tricks and scare tactics, and high drama has frothed up in the region’s political landscape.

 

I decide to embed myself  in what may very well turn out to one of the signature policy moments for the Obama administration and one of the most important social issues the country’s every grappled with.

 

BATTLE IN BERDOO

A rally outside the headquarters of U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) a few weeks ago led to reports of foul language from the Glenn Beck side of the spectrum. Intrigued, I headed out the next day to catch a rally outside the office of Congressman Joe Baca (D-Rialto) in San Bernardino. As I pull into Berdoo, I can’t help but think that here’s a city that could use health care reform, the desperation capital of the IE. The police are out in force and a crowd of over a hundred rings the Baca’s building near the Carousel Mall.  It’s 100 degrees but that hasn’t stopped activists like Shirley Harlan from braving the heat. “Health care for profit makes me sick,” she tells me.

 

As a line it’s only OK, but for millions of the uninsured it’s a painful truth.  

 

The rally has been organized by Organizing for America, Obama’s attempt to take his powerful donor base and apply it towards policy issues.  Event organizers on the ground say the “police have been great,” maybe one of the reasons there are no counter-protesters to be seen. What, no angry guys quoting Thomas Jefferson out of context and coming strapped to town hall meetings? Does this still count as a demonstration, I wonder.

 

Soon, we’re all marching off to the City Hall. Many in the crowd are chanting, “2, 4, 6, 8, health reform cannot wait.” Listen, just because the chant is lame doesn’t make it an iota less true. As we walk, the crowd moves by a homeless man digging through a trashcan. He’s weather-beaten, gaunt, and frankly doesn’t give a crap about the middle-class protesters milling past him. He’s also likely to be uninsured, relies on the emergency room for expensive care charged directly to the taxpayers and a walking, stumbling reason for the public option—that galvanizing idea of a government-run health insurance plan to compete with private companies that has proven a silver bullet to Republicans.

 

OUTCRY FOR OPTION

We arrive at City Hall. The set up is low-key and relaxed and the crowd waits patiently for the festivities to begin. Now, we’re in the shade and it’s slightly less hideous to be outside. The crowd applauds all of the speakers but really roars when Pat Meagher, candidate for Congressional District 41—otherwise known as U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis’ (R-Redlands) fiefdom—describes how desperately our country needs the public option, a line that draws the biggest outpouring of support for the day. That’s when it hits me: No one is out here to support insurance collectives or some other watered-down gruel of a reform. They all seem to feel that the public option is going to happen.  

 

When I get back home from the rally I turn on cable news. It’s abuzz with the rumor that the Obama administration is about to jettison the public option over the sides in an attempt to gain the support of Olympia Snowe, the Republican senator from Maine. A few weeks later, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus meets with fellow Democrats to explain his version of a health care reform sans public option. 

 

What happens to the people at that rally if this is true? Wouldn’t this be Obama knee-capping his most fervent supporters? Wouldn’t it be the death of true health care reform in this country?

 

Meanwhile, I realize that a local Republican has been steeped in scare tactics and hypocrisies in an effort to kill reform.

 

LETTERS FROM KEN

Over the summer, I had received several e-mails from Ken Calvert. Up for a bit of lampooning, the following letters between the congressman and a “loyal” constituent who would vote for Ken Calvert only under threat of waterboarding, exile or being forced to listen to an entire Calvert speech, are represented in their entirety:

 

Dear Friends,

This is the first of several regular updates to answer the most common questions about the pending health care legislation in Congress. The updates will also be made available on my Facebook page and on my website. Make sure to become a “fan” so I can share updates directly to your news feed.

  First, I wholeheartedly agree that the U.S. health care system must be reformed in order to improve access to care. Any health care reform bill must lower the cost of care for you and all Americans and protect the sanctity of the Doctor-Patient relationship. Unfortunately, I believe the Democrat health care bill does the exact opposite in the name of government-controlled health care.

Sincerely,

KEN CALVERT
Member of Congress

 

 

Calvert, in the letter, unleashes the dogs: higher taxes, Big Government, death panels, how abortion will be foisted upon God-fearing folks as part of the reform legislation and how he’s “concerned for America’s seniors” because their Medicare will get chopped up like chicken liver or how they’ll be forced to pay more for crappier coverage.

 

I decide to write back.

 

Dear Ken,

I couldn’t help but notice your recent bulk email you kindly sent to me a few days ago regarding the current health care initiatives being debated. Thanks for helping me understand your interesting views on the issue. Our correspondence started several years ago when I wrote to you urging you to oppose the coming war in Iraq. You assured me that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that we would be greeted in the streets of Baghdad as liberators.  I’m supremely confident you will bring your unique foresight to the issue of health care in the same manner.

Some of the arguments in your letter I hadn’t seen anywhere else, and I’m one of the few people left in America who is un-cool enough to read a newspaper. As the mainstream media discusses whether there will even be a public option, you suggest 114 million Americans will be forced to give up their private insurance and spend days waiting in DMV-style lines when their children have the sniffles. Especially intriguing was your inference that terminally ill seniors will simply be drugged and not given actual medical care. This is a monstrous idea and it’s no wonder that there is so little talk on the matter. Why won’t anyone discuss this? Why is the liberal media covering this up? You, sir, are a voice in the wilderness.    

The last thing that struck me was your obvious fear of government-run health care and your pledge to keep the Democrats from touching Medicare. Medicare, as I’m sure you know, is a government-run health care program. Members of Congress also receive government-run health care, but it must be quite awful due to your insistence on saving ordinary Americans from the socialist nightmare you suffer through. This is a true sacrifice on your part, especially since you are one of America’s portliest representatives and would surely benefit from getting into one of these snazzy, private-insurance plans, with trainers and juice bars.

I look forward to your next bulk e-mail,

Sincerely,

Bill Gerdes 

 

SECRETLY A DEMOCRAT?

Ken next mixed it up by sending me an email bragging about his work in bringing more public transportation to the Inland Empire. I found this strange; it was a bit like the Pope touting his new line of condoms for teenage Catholics.  

 

Dear Friends,

I wanted to share with you an article recently published in The Press-Enterprise about testimony I gave before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures.

My legislation, The One Time Act, (H.R. 947) could generate billions of dollars nationwide for vital transportation projects, such as grade separations. In our area, not only would it provide much-needed improvements to our infrastructure but it would create thousands of private sector jobs.

  

Sincerely,

KEN CALVERT
Member of Congress

 

Dear Ken,

I’m thrilled you wrote me back. We now officially have a correspondence going. I was intrigued to hear about your efforts on behalf of public transportation. The fact that your On Time Act would not only raise money for highway expansion but also, gasp, high-speed rail across the country blows my mind. I won’t even think to ask you how you support tax increases and government intervention in this one specific case, whereas in the stimulus bill you suggested that government programs like these force, “The people who are the backbone of our economy-the middle class-into a troubling kind of public dependency.” Maybe you’re coming around Ken; maybe you’re becoming a Democrat.

Sincerely,

Bill Gerdes

 

THE TRUTH REVEALED

Ken was quiet for a few weeks and frankly I began to wonder if our new relationship was in trouble. I went for long walks and tried to focus on where I was to blame. I was so desperate I almost started up a correspondence with my state representative. I was only saved by the fact I have no idea who this person is. Then, one morning my spam box winked at me.

He’d written.

 

Dear Friends,

I wanted to share with you my opinion article from the August 9th The Press-Enterprise. I completely agree that our health care system must be reformed, but I think there is a better way forward that preserves the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship, does not provide health insurance to illegal immigrants, provides portability of health plans and incorporates bipartisan solutions.

I encourage you to sign a petition and fill out the health care survey.

 

Sincerely,

KEN CALVERT
Member of Congress

 

Dear Ken,

Summer is fading as fast as the dream of universal health care in this country, a dream that you have done your small part in driving a stake through the heart of. Now, I’m under no delusion that you have any sway or power with the Republican Leadership, despite your 16 years in office, but any effort designed to insure that millions of Americans remain uninsured needs its spear-carriers too. Your Health Care Survey is a fine example of your spin—this time with a touch of subtlety that the “Obama wants to kill granny” angle lacked. Sure, you start off with a Lou Dobbsian question so obviously framed with Republican talking points that you risk exposing the fact this isn’t really a survey but instead yet another attempt to strangle health care in its crib. However you hit your stride after that, dropping lies so subtly as to seem almost un-Republican. I especially like the last question where you raise the specter of the Republican Apocalypse, money for illegals, abortions and tax increases. That’s a triple whammy for your fear-imbibing base. Don’t worry Ken. Baby-sick immigrants and their children will still flood our emergency rooms and if you and the insurance companies get their way, so will huge swaths of the American born population.

 

Sincerely,

Bill Gerdes

 

I haven’t heard from Ken since. At this point I’ve marked it all down as a summer political fling. I’m currently looking for a more serious Republican to exchange bulk emails with. Mary Bono Mack, call me.


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