Postscript on Harry and Louise

Health reform takeaways from the convention

On Monday, I mentioned the latest television commercial featuring Harry and Louise—the infamous TV couple who periodically take to the airwaves and opine on the state of American health insurance. I noted that Harry and Louise also appeared eight years ago, promoting solutions for health care reform identical to those we hear from politicians and interest groups today—build on the current system and offer tax credits and other subsidies to help people buy insurance policies from commercial companies. The next day, someone sent me a copy of “The Next Failure of Health Care Reform”, a story that appeared last March in CounterPunch, a biweekly, liberal newsletter that promises “muckraking with a radical attitude.”

Author Vicente Navarro, a professor of health policy and policy studies at The Johns Hopkins University and a founding member of Physicians for a National Health Program, offered a cogent and interesting history of the decades-old struggle to enact national health insurance in the U.S., along with a critique of the tepid approaches advanced by the Democratic candidates this year. Navarro says the proposals of Barack Obama (and, when she was running, Hillary Clinton) “will diminish somewhat the number of those not covered by health insurance and will reduce the level of undercoverage. But the major problems will remain unresolved.” He noted that “people will still experience incomplete coverage, and many millions will continue to be uninsured and underinsured.”

This story is not only a good read but provides great context—a primer, so to speak—for the media as they continue to report on this latest round of reform. Navarro is no health care neophyte. He was Jesse Jackson’s senior health adviser during the 1984 and 1988 campaigns, and worked with Hillary Clinton’s Health Care Reform Task Force in 1993. His experience with health reform failures lends credence to his suggestion that the current reform movement may be heading on the same track once again.

Navarro says that the Democratic Party platforms in 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992 called for health care coverage for everyone—calls which, he explained, were often made without much conviction. This year, after much hoopla in platform committee meetings, Democrats resurrected the same call to action: “All Americans should have coverage they can afford; employers should have incentives to provide coverage to their workers; insurers and providers should ensure high quality affordable care…As affordable coverage is made available, individuals should purchase health insurance and take steps to lead healthy lives.” Although the rhetoric is strong, how much conviction is behind it remains to be seen.

And those stories told on the campaign trail about single moms without health insurance are nothing new. In 1988, Michael Dukakis talked about a single mother who had two jobs and still could not afford medical insurance for herself and her kids. In 1992, Bill Clinton talked about a woman who could not get health insurance because she had diabetes. This year, Hillary Clinton told the tale of a single mother of two daughters who could not pay her medical bills because she had a congenital heart defect, making her uninsurable.

Tuesday night, Clinton related another single mom story. This mom had adopted two kids with autism, and then got cancer: “She greeted me with her bald head painted with my name on it and asked me to fight for her health care and for her and her children,” Clinton told the cheering crowd. Last night, the former president told the same crowd he would “never forget the parents and children with autism and other severe conditions” who said they “couldn’t afford health care and couldn’t qualify the kids for Medicaid unless they quit work or got a divorce.”

There you have it—convention takeaways. Which brings me back to Harry and Louise.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.