HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Escaping Mephistopheles

Phew! We escaped, for now. The Regime-in-Power wanted to replace Obamacare with Trumpcare. Trumpcare would have stripped 24 million Americans of health insurance, dumped “maternity benefits” from policies that already excluded contraception, pared “mental health” coverage while relaxing restrictions on gun ownership, forced millennials off their parents’ policies – and driven premiums into the stratosphere for some for the sickest Americans.

Only Mephistopheles could have spurred this cruelty. In November 2016, much like Faust, a swathe of the American voters made a bargain with Mephistopheles. Disguised as Donald Trump, he wore populist garb, sprouted snake-oil promises of nirvana if only disgruntled Americans would elect him. He flaunted those Sunday School virtues of kindness, compassion, and honesty. He decried the truth as false news; he ridiculed people with disabilities; he lambasted foreigners with a zeal that evoked Father Coughlin. Trump eschewed humility, proud of cheating his workers and his lenders to amass billions. No surprise that an early mentor was Roy Cohn. Like Joe McCarthy, this evil seed showed no shame. He aroused our “lesser” angels, as xenophobia and racism became almost acceptable. The world-to-come would be “great.”

Once in the White House, he shed the populist garb for plutocrat robes. And he enlisted a swarm of well-heeled followers to join him in his war – not against poverty – but against the poor.

The key health-care battle, for the moment, is over. A heady mix of commonsense, decency, and political reality killed it; but the war against the poor continues on other fronts – education (diverting money to private schools leaves the poor trapped in public schools) environment (the poor disproportionately live in polluted neighborhoods), foreign entanglements (the poor fight the wars the powerful embrace), tax reform (“reforms” invariably benefit the rich).

Even on the health-care front, though, the Congressional ranks still swell with minions eager to strip from poor and middle-income Americans access to the care that the well-to-do take for granted. The income-based subsidies that undergird Obamacare are vulnerable. And the “essential benefits” are still up for discussion, up for paring. Congress may eventually dump “maternity care” and “mental health” as non-essential.

In this battle, the course of action is clear: the people who stood to lose under the American Health Care Act (a moniker strikingly similar to the Affordable Care Act) must speak out. Throughout the country, the replacement Act would have hurt millions of working Americans whom Trump lured, often the ones yelling “Repeal Obamacare” the loudest. Now that they have seen the horrors of “repeal,” they know that this Regime will not deliver nirvana, but something akin to hell.

We must stop focusing on the red-herring, red-flag diversions of our President: the ludicrous midnight tweets, the wiretapping conspiracies, the inter-office leaks among the presidential acolytes. Diversions detract attention from the cruelty.

We must awaken in legislators – Democrats and Republicans – their better angels. We must remind them, again and again, that the government exists to serve us, that the “government by the people” rhetoric holds true. We do not want to slash spending simply to swell the coffers of the rich. As a just society, we do not want to watch a stratum of us sink into squalor. Like Faust, we risk losing our souls.

Besides, healthwise there are dangers to that squalor. Unvaccinated restaurant workers can infect well-heeled diners with infectious diseases. The lure of mind-numbing opioids can turn disgruntled people into addicts into felons. Children born without prenatal care may need expensive post-natal care. The much-vaunted productivity of workers will plummet. And hospitals, deprived of enough patients with insurance, will be hard-pressed to open their doors to the uninsured patients. Walk along a street in the developing world, in countries where luxurious oases of wealth thrive amidst Shantytowns; see the beggars missing limbs, or blind, with babies on laps. Look at the infant mortality figures, the morbidity data.

Like Faust, the American people made a bad bargain. Let us force our leaders to recognize that bargain as dangerous.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2017

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