Critical Condition

Cantor Misses an Opportunity on Health Reform

I would likely be the least effective politician ever to host a town hall, so I should probably keep my trap shut. Nevertheless, I am always surprised at how Republican politicians let opportunities to discuss an alternative vision of health reform fly by, without even trying to wave them down.

Here’s Rep. Eric Cantor at a town hall in Virginia the other day, faced with woman whose close relative has just been diagnosed with tumors. No doubt, it’s awful for a politician to have to deal with someone’s personal tragedy, face-to-face, during a town hall. It’s easy for me to criticise Mr. Cantor after the fact. However, his answer to the questioner’s challenge rests firmly on the status quo: The woman should investigate Medicaid, or charity care, or other ways to navigate the current system, now that she’s lost her employer-based health benefits.

He missed the perfect opportunity to explain why this woman did not have to lose coverage. After all, she ”did have a wonderful, high-paying job, owns her own home, and was a real, contributing member of society. She lost her job. Just a couple of weeks ago, she found out that she has tumors . . .”

I suggest that a better answer doesn’t rely on the frayed safety net that we have today, but goes something like this: “Actually, I’m sorry to say that your relative never had health insurance. Her employer had health insurance, and reduced her pay by about $9,000 to pay for it. That’s because the federal tax code gives your employer monopoly-control over your health dollars. Our reform would increase her pay and allow her to buy health insurance that she’d never lose, and would never exclude coverage for a pre-existing condition, because the insurance would be her property.”

Well, maybe it wouldn’t work: Mr. Cantor had been elected repeatedly, and I never have, so he must know what he’s doing. But few Republican politicians are comfortable in their skins talking about health care. (One impressive exception is Arizona State Rep. Nancy Barto.)

I should say that the same is not true of their written communications, which are becoming increasingly well-tuned. The House Republican Conference, chaired by Rep. Mike Pence, puts out regular “One Page” memos, edited by staffer Christopher Jacobs, that are outstanding.

— John R. Graham is director of Health Care Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.