OK, now that I have your attention, let me first say that the above is absolutely not true. Sorry, I know its a cheap trick, but had I written, "Let's Take a Calm Look at Health Care Reform," you probably wouldn't be reading this. I'm hoping that those attracted here by that sensational headline will let the intended irony sink all the way in and then do themselves the favor of reading further.
The Republican party and its de facto media wing, FOX News — no strangers to cheap-trick headlines — took one of their own to task this week — Republican Senator Tom Coburn — at a recent town hall event in Oklahoma. Coburn had the temerity to say something reasonably respectful about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (and got booed). Then, when someone asked him about the possibility that people could be imprisoned for not buying health insurance under the recently passed Obama plan, he compounded his sin by trying to dispel the persistent rumor.
“The intention is not to put anybody in jail," Coburn explained, adding, "That makes for good TV news on FOX, but that isn't the intention.” If you're not familiar with the event, see this. Coburn, of course, paid dearly in the right-leaning press for his effort to disengage from Party of No rhetoric, after his FOX comment hit the airwaves and the Internet. And FOX News personality Bill O'Reilly categorically denied that anyone had ever said such a thing on a FOX program.
In this article, however, TIME magazine online blogger Kate Pickert reviewed FOX transcripts and found that, indeed, FOX personalities had given the "go to jail if you don't buy insurance" rumor plenty of exposure on several occasions. (Pickert also point out, for the record, that the new health care law specifically forbids jailing anyone who refuses to buy health insurance.)
To me, the most astonishing thing is not that right-wingers are so intent on misrepresenting the law, but that they are so upset by the idea of compulsory insurance in the first place. Opponents of "Obamacare" frequently appeal to the U.S. Constitution, claiming that the idea is a violation of their inalienable rights. But here in Colorado, if I want to own a car, I must buy auto insurance and that insurance must adhere to certain coverage standards. When I register my vehicle, I must sign a statement on the back of the registration certificate, which is preceded by warnings about the penalties established by law for noncompliance.
"Motor vehicle insurance is compulsory in Colorado," it declares at the top and then goes on to warn in bold type, "Non-compliance is a misdemeanor traffic offense. The minimum penalty for such offense is a five hundred dollar fine. The maximum penalty for such offense is one-year imprisonment and a one-thousand dollar fine [italics mine]." Further, I must sign a statement, declaring that I swear or affirm, on penalty of perjury (a separate offense that also can carry jail time), that I have purchased said insurance.
Auto insurance is, in fact, compulsory in most U.S. states. Many prescribe revocation of driving privileges and potential jail time for those who don't comply.
Now, I don't know where the Party of No and Tea Party folks were when their states took away their "right" to be uninsured drivers, but they can't blame that one on President Obama. And the fact that their home state government might put them in jail if they let their car insurance lapse ought to give the states-righters among them reason to rethink the secessionist rhetoric.
But the point is this: These U.S. states have made auto insurance compulsory because the costs imposed on society by uninsured drivers were very high. Those who responsibly insured themselves ended up shouldering the cost, in the form of higher rates, of the property-damage, medical and accidental-death judgments that their insurance companies were unable to collect from the uninsured. Because it was both unreasonable and unfair to penalize the responsible for the actions of the irresponsible (something a Teabagger really ought to resonate with), these states enacted compulsory auto insurance laws. Having every car owner in the insurance pool keeps rates down and ensures that all are protected against financial devastation when accidents happen. Does this argument sound familiar?
It should. This is the simple, sensible solution to high costs that Congressional health care reform advocates have sought for decades. What some see as a "government takeover" of health care is merely a long-overdue effort to regulate it, just like car insurance is regulated. The concept is neither new nor radical nor socialist — it's hard to make a case for it being "unAmerican" when so many Americans already dutifully comply with such a law every time they write that car insurance check. And in the case of health insurance — despite what the rumormongers still insist on telling us — there's no threat of jail time. So ... why all the angst?
Here's an idea: Let's take a calm look at health care reform.