Do the right thing: Move ahead with reform

Perhaps I was dazzled by Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith" and Aaron Sorkin's President Bartlet, but I've long believed that most citizens seek public office because they want to do the right thing. Many have different views of that right thing than I do. And, as we all know, many of them succumb to temptations that take them far off course, where they indulge greed, selfishness and a hunger for power.

Still, I believe most of them want to serve their constituents and improve people's lives. That's why Democrats need to go ahead and pass a comprehensive health care reform bill, even if they think they'll face a backlash in November. Comprehensive health care reform is simply the right thing — the moral thing — to do.

Millions of Americans cannot afford to purchase health insurance. Nearly 45,000 people die every year for want of the insurance that would provide medical care. It's shameful that a country as prosperous as this hasn't figured out a way to extend health care to all its citizens.

The health care "system," by the way, doesn't work all that well for those of us who have coverage. Profit-making insurance companies do everything they can to keep from paying for illnesses. They practice rescission, employing a huge bureaucracy to find ways to drop customers when they get sick. They refuse to cover pre-existing conditions or ongoing medical complaints. And, with or without health care reform, costs will continue to soar. At least provisions in both the House and Senate bills have the potential for keeping costs in check over time.

Much of the public dissatisfaction over health care reform stems from the abysmal and protracted process — GOP obstructionism, deal-making, proposals that die, reappear and die again — a process that has left voters confused about what health care reform would accomplish. And Republicans — who equate destroying Barack Obama's presidency with doing the right thing — have fueled that confusion with dissembling, distortions and outright lies, from "death panels" to claims of a "vast government takeover."

And, if the responses on my blog are any indication, some of the opposition stems from a misunderstanding about what the plan represents: Many critics believe health care reform represents the stereotypical welfare proposal — a transfer of benefits to the poor. Happily, the poor are already covered by Medicaid.

The consumers who stand to benefit most from health care reform are hardworking, legal citizens whose jobs don't provide medical insurance. They are waiters, retail clerks, housepainters, massage therapists, day care workers and a host of others who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but still can't afford the out-of-pocket costs of private insurance.

Still, days after Scott Brown's stunning upset in Massachusetts, Democrats are quaking in their boots. They need to keep three things in mind.

First off, Brown didn't campaign against universal health care. As a state senator, he voted for the universal health care plan in Massachusetts, which still draws broad support. (That plan became the model for a national health care reform bill.) Brown cleverly persuaded his state's voters that they had already fixed their health care problem, and they shouldn't have to foot the bill to fix it for the rest of the country.

Second, as a practical matter, Democrats are already seen as the party of health care reform. If they back away from it, they'll look weak and unprincipled. Voters are unlikely to reward them for that.

Third, and most important, passing comprehensive health care reform is the right thing to do. Many of the most-loved pieces of progressive legislation, including Medicare, met a hailstorm of disapproval when they were proposed. So some Democrats might lose their seats for supporting health care reform.

But what's the point of holding office if you're not prepared to do something courageous every now and then?

Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at Follow her blog at

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