Classic Coburn

CLASSIC COBURN…. We’re probably past the point at which one concerned American asking one question at a single town-hall forum can change the nature of the larger health care debate. But this clip, posted by Zaid Jilani, struck me as both powerful and illustrative.

For those of you who can’t watch clips from your work computers, CNN’s Rick Sanchez aired an exchange yesterday between a woman desperate for health care assistance and Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma. The woman in the clip struggles to even speak through her tears, but she explains to her right-wing senator that her husband has traumatic brain injuries. Their family’s private insurer, she said, won’t cover some of his treatments. “We left the nursing home,” she said, “and they told us we are on our own.” She breaks down, pleading for help.

Coburn’s response was fascinating. “Well, I think, first of all, yes, we will help,” the senator said. “The first thing we will do is see what we can do individually to help you through our office. But the other thing that’s missing in this debate is us as neighbors helping people that need our help.”

When that generated some applause, the Oklahoman added, “The idea that the government is the solution to our problems is an inaccurate, a very inaccurate statement.”

This struck me as interesting for a few reasons. The first, which Rick Sanchez noted to viewers, is that Coburn said his office would try to help this woman’s family, right before saying government isn’t the answer. Sanchez asked, “Isn’t he the government?”

Second, the idea of “neighbors helping people” sounds very nice, and it’s always heartening to see neighbors lend a hand to struggling families. But there are tens of millions of Americans with no health care coverage, and millions more, including this family in Oklahoma, who are under-insured or who will lose their insurance when they need it most. The vast majority of them don’t have neighbors who are oncologists, surgeons, nurses, obstetricians, or rehabilitation experts who would be willing to work for free.

Coburn’s answer represents mindless, reflexive opposition to government, for opposition’s sake. It’s a worldview that’s as shallow as it is destructive.

Is government intervention always the answer to every societal problem? Of course not. But health care is critically important — literally, a life-or-death issue — for just about every single person and family in the country. It’s a basic public service — not unlike police protection, fire departments, roads, or schools — that every industrialized democracy manages to provide its citizens, expect us, thanks to “leaders” like Coburn and those who share his ideology.

Government, in this case, is obviously the solution. We’ve left it to the private free market, and it’s failed spectacularly, producing a nightmarish system that costs too much and covers too few. The most effective parts of the U.S. health care system — the VA and Medicare — just happen to be the two parts intertwined with the government.

I’ll never understand the right’s obsession with hating the government, but for Coburn to lecture that woman in dire straits about the evils of government intervention in the health care system is callous, cruel, and exactly the kind of twisted thinking policymakers will have to reject to pass real reform.