Government-Run Health Care, Maine Style
I knew it was just a matter of time. I've been in and out of the Togus VA medical center in Augusta rather often lately, and hence have enjoyed my share of downtime chilling in waiting rooms with my fellow vets. I was pretty sure that sooner or later, somebody would launch some conversational gambit — not a tirade, Mainers aren't given to tirades — on the general theme of the Obama administration's nefarious plan to stage a government takeover of the heath care system.
The moment arrived in a crowded waiting area outside the pharmacy. This pharmacy is a unique sort of place, a well-lit and pleasantly appointed antechamber to what I imagine must be a frenetic but orderly scene enacted behind closed doors, as thousands of prescriptions are filled with inerrant precision and delivered either free or at deeply subsidized cost to patients on the spot, while countless others are bagged and mailed to others waiting at home. The drugs on offer are almost exclusively generic versions of familiar medications, and the VA uses its daunting scale to bargain for the lowest price from pharmaceutical manufacturers, thus holding costs down.
Fox News was airing on a TV set mounted high on a wall. The director of the Southern Poverty Law Center — an Alabama-based institution that has taken up the grim task of tracking hate groups in America — was being interviewed about the current wave of extremism that has resulted in, among other things, a dozen men carrying firearms, including one former militia kingpin with an AR-15 assault rifle, to gather outside a presidential event in Phoenix, Arizona.
The TV sound was mercifully low, and I don't think the vet in the row of chairs behind me was paying much attention. I tuned in somewhat late — after I heard the name Nancy Pelosi — to his conversation with an older man a couple of seats away. You don't hear much about Nancy Pelosi in waiting rooms, generally speaking. I can't give you a full transcript of the remarks that followed, because the vet was speaking quietly and there was a certain level of background noise. Suffice it to say you could probably reconstruct them with a fair degree of accuracy right there at home, using a random sentence generator and the key words "government," "these liberals," "taxes," "no freedom left," and "broke."
My name scrolled presently onto the green-screened monitor listing patients with prescriptions ready for pickup. In the process of standing up and strolling to the plexiglas window, I glanced back to take the measure of this citizen whose fear and loathing of Big Brother had robbed him of whatever sense of irony he may once have possessed. He was a well-built fellow, neatly dressed in a plaid cotton shirt, and looked to be a few years younger than myself. Say 50, give or take.
This was kind of interesting, because a 50-year-old American stands right now at the tipping point of a striking generational divide. Recent polls have shown that Americans under 50 are generally supportive of a wide range of social initiatives, ranging from health care reform and marriage equality to acting to forestall global climate change. Older Americans tend to oppose such things.
But of course statistics of this kind conceal a multitude of particularities. There are no doubt millions of older people who understand that Medicare, for example, is a form of single-payer (i.e. government-run) health care, and that it works pretty well. As do U.S. military medical services and, closer to home, the VA center in Augusta. Which makes it that much harder to fathom the cognitive disconnect involved in railing against the government's intrusion into the realm of health services while, at the same time, voluntarily availing oneself of those very services.
I suppose many vets would say they only go to Togus because they have no other choice. They're self-employed, or their job doesn't provide health benefits, and they can't afford the exorbitant premiums of an individual health plan, or maybe they've been turned down because of some pre-existing medical problem. But that's the whole point of health care reform, isn't it? The idea — the moral imperative, if you will — is to offer help to that huge chunk of the American populace, 46 million and counting, that currently has no health insurance at all.
At Togus that day, there didn't seem any point in getting into all this. A lot of folks simply seem to have their minds made up. But I still hope that common sense, and common decency, will ultimately prevail.