No Way to Run A Railroad

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As the government staggered into shutdown this week, Americans and the world were treated to the spectacle of a Congress that is utterly broken, whose approval ratings are lower than both used car salesmen and journalists. As a member of the latter trade, I didn’t think that was possible. No matter where you land on the political spectrum it is difficult to find much to be proud of these days in how our system has ceased to function. Blame who you want — Democrats, Republicans, the president — we lurch from one manufactured crisis to another.

Last year, the United States risked damaging its slow climb back from the recession, when it nearly defaulted on its debts because both parties couldn’t come to agreement on raising the debt ceiling. Incredibly, that issue comes up again in a few weeks, right after Congress gets through this shutdown mess.

This clearly is no way to run a railroad. The shutdown came because a majority of House Republicans are determined to repeal the Affordable Care Act, forever known now as Obamacare. The House has voted to repeal it more than 40 times, a grandstanding exercise in futility since the Senate won’t consider the measure. So the latest tactic was to attempt defunding Obamacare by linking it to the spending bill that keeps the lights on and the doors open for federal offices across the country.  Supporters point out the health care act is now the law of the land, that it was deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court, and its principal architect — the president — won re-election resoundingly. Maybe he isn’t exactly popular around these parts, but they have a point.

The way opponents talk about it — The Job-Killing, Money-Sucking, Soul-Destroying Obamacare — one would think its imminent implementation likely means the end of the free republic as we know it. There are likely aspects to the law that need to be tweaked, but surely few would argue that trying to guarantee everybody has health insurance is a bad thing. That is especially true in Texas, where 25 percent of the population doesn’t have insurance. Many of those folks end up in emergency rooms when they’re sick. The rest of us subsidize them through higher premiums and higher taxes to support indigent care. There has to be a better way. Besides, Obamacare started out as a Republican idea. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Mitt Romney or the conservative Heritage Foundation, from which much of the notion of health insurance exchanges originated.

I have excellent health insurance coverage through a longtime employer from whom I now have a lifetime retiree benefit, for which I am grateful. So Obamacare does not directly affect me. Out of curiosity I went online to healthcare.gov to see what would be involved if I did have to obtain health insurance. While I couldn’t proceed very far in the process without actually providing my Social Security number, the procedure seemed pretty straightforward.

Texas is one of 27 states that refused to set up the exchange system — really just a marketplace for insurers to compete for your business — so the feds are doing it.  Users pick from four levels of coverage — bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Higher coverage and lower deductibles means higher premiums. Low premiums could bring deductibles of $5,000 or more. That might not be a bad alternative for a 27-year-old healthy single male, who isn’t likely to need a doctor unless he gets in a wreck. From what I’ve read, premium costs are coming in at times lower than predicted, and somewhat higher in other places. It depends on the market. Obamacare relies on a market system, with private insurers competing for your money. In other words, Obamacare is capitalism with the government lending a hand to those who need help paying for insurance. Why would anyone have a problem with that? If you are over 65, Medicare provides a generous health care benefit. Why not figure out a way to help provide a similar benefit to those younger, who can’t afford it through an employer with subsidies for those with lower incomes?

It seems to me that instead of trying to blow up a comprehensive act that will give access to health insurance to millions who have been shut out before because of pre-existing conditions, or because they were unemployed, or myriad other reasons, that we ought to give it a shot. Why not proceed and then fix what doesn’t work? That makes a lot more sense than attempting to gut it and wasting an incredible amount of time and energy demonizing something that has already become settled law.

As for Obamacare being a job-killer, there simply isn’t any proof of that. The mandate to provide coverage only affects the 3 percent of businesses employing 50 or more employees who don’t already do so — and it’s been delayed for a year. Certainly there are employers out there who are hesitating to hire until it is implemented, but that is their decision. If they really need workers, they are going to hire them. That’s just good business.

We seem to have lost the ability to govern. That is both the fault of Congress and the president, who has never learned how to push his agenda with the skills that some of his predecessors — Reagan and Clinton, for example — brought to the job.

Politicians love to say that America is the greatest country in the world. And maybe it still is. But to outsiders we are beginning to look more like Italy with our manufactured crises and partisan political chasms — just without the great cuisine.

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