Through the looking-glass

The teabagging of health care reform

Aug 19, 2009 at 5:00 am

Robert Strickland’s wife was in distress. Her appendix burst and she needed emergency surgery. But Strickland had just lost his job, and because his health insurance was employer-based, he and his family were bereft when the catastrophe came. In the end, he said, the Stricklands would’ve faced about $65,000 in medical bills, were it not for government-funded Medicaid picking up the tab.

It’s a typical story rich in axiomatic value, given the state of health care in this country, where close to 50 million are uninsured, millions more are underinsured, and even more have insurance contingent upon their employment. Time and again, anecdotes like the Stricklands’ are used to underscore the need for reform of the for-profit health insurance industry, providing a collective narrative for those advocating government intervention in health care — everything from mandating insurance to further regulation, from nonprofit co-ops to the “public option,” where government would provide basic, low-cost coverage in an attempt to drive down premium costs in the private sector. Democratic legislation offered thus far would also use possible tax increases to pressure employers to offer coverage and otherwise leave employer-based coverage in place.

Except Robert Strickland doesn’t believe in any of that. Strickland opposes the reform agendas of congressional Democrats and President Obama because all of them call for government intervention at some level. He was the first person I talked to when I arrived outside the Mazzoli Federal Building last Friday to check out a local version of the latest trend in American democracy: the teabagging of health care reform.

“The system I would envision is, if government has to mandate (health insurance), that it would mandate that if you have a pre-existing condition, the health insurance companies couldn’t drop you just for having a pre-existing condition,” Strickland said. “And if you lost your job, you would be able to continue your insurance. But the cost is so much more expensive when you’re paying for it on your own.”

Hmm. Everything he’d said at that point suggested he agreed with the Obama agenda, which includes requiring insurers to cover you regardless of past conditions, softening the connection between insurance and employment by creating the safety net of a cheap government health plan, and driving down the cost of private insurance plans. When I suggested this, he bristled, saying the government has been on an ongoing mission of expansion intended to strip him of his liberty and freedom.

This wasn’t a group intent on disrupting a town hall meeting like some others on the political right. Nor were the protesters in plain view of anything but the cars passing by at 35 miles per hour along Sixth and Chestnut streets, unlike the pro-reform gathering one block south (and with about four times the people) at the same time on the same day.

This is an extension of the summer’s teabagging movement, whose message is a basic ideological opposition to the Obama agenda — every protest merits the trashing of cap-and-trade legislation, health care reform and bank bailouts, all ending in the pervasive fear that Americans are losing their “liberty and freedom.”

Those seeking to teabag health care reform use code words like “socialism” to instill a broad fear of Obama and Democrats in those whose understanding is perhaps a little less coherent than the mainstream. The movement is gaining in popularity, if not in intellectual scope or rigor; there seems to be an inverse relationship between understanding of current reform proposals and the clamor about death panels coming from the far-right. Go to any of these protests and you’re likely to find a group of people so earnest and steadfast in their own righteousness you’d think they were garden-variety liberals. Except that they believe government workers will come to your house and snuff your grandmother if there’s a “public option.”

“I think it’s very unfortunate, because I think the media’s more focused on the conflicts than on the substance,” Yarmuth said. “And I find that when I’m able to sit with people and talk about what the plans do and de-mythify some of the claims of the people fighting it, people are pretty supportive. But nobody said it was going to be easy.”

Yarmuth’s office is holding a town hall meeting on health care reform Wednesday, Sept. 2 at Central High School.

For help discerning truth from lies about health care reform, visit And follow LEO’s news blog ( for updates to this and related stories, including more resources for learning about the various health care proposals being debated.