I danced with my insurance agent the other day. It was a pleasant enough experience, but then he said something that made my hair stand on end.
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My insurance agent and I do this little dance every year about this time. He calls it my "insurance check-up". I think the company makes him do it. It's really a pointless exercise. I'm not buying anything he'd like to sell me, and he's not about to sell me anything I might actually want
to buy. He already has both my wife's and my vehicles and our homeowner's policy. We're not going to be buying any summer beachfront property any time soon, and unless I go over the edge and buy that Mid-life Crisis Car (anyone in the midwest have a Volvo 1800 coupe they're looking to unload?), he's insuring all the vehicles we can drive already.
Now, life insurance, disability, major medical? I don't really need any more than I already have or can get through work, but I'm tempted to ask about it anyway, just to watch him go pale and remember he left the water running in the sink at home or something and has to leave. Right now. Here's a little tip for you all: If you want to get rid of pesky insurance salesmen, have a heart attack. It works wonders. Say the words and they just disappear! It's like magic.
Anyway, my agent I were doing our little charade of a dance which--given the "not buying"/"not selling" nature of out relationship--amounts to spending half an hour chatting about our families, local events, the weather, anything but insurance. So we were talking, and he mentioned that one of the things that's been keeping him busy lately has been trying to help his senior-citizen clients try to sort out the Prescription Drug plans, pointing for emphasis at an impressively tall stack of pamphlets, papers and forms sitting on the corner of his desk. I shared with him my father-in-law's experience trying to find which companies had the best deal on the drugs he and my mother-in-law use, and discovering that many of the plans hadn't even finalized their drug lists yet, weeks into the sign-up period. And we talked about what a Rube-Goldbergian boondogle the whole thing was.
More talk ensued, we mulled over a few other subjects, then I mentioned that the local medical clinic had dropped my insurance carrier, so I was now going to have to drive twenty miles to another GP, instead of five blocks to the guy I had seen for the past twenty years. I posited that all the arguments against government health care had fallen by the wayside. My insurance company tells me which doctors I can see, insurance company clerks decide what medical procedures I can have, and the doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies eat up about a third of their revenue playing the billing game instead of delivering health care.
After carefully sizing up the properly-softened situation, I decided the time was right to roll out the big gun. "I'm ready for National Healthcare," says I. "Turn the whole thing over to the government. They couldn't possibly do any worse."
That was when he got me. He waved his hand toward that stack of Prescription Drug Plan paperwork and said, "That's what you get when you let government get involved in healthcare."
I didn't handle the situation well. I know I should have forcefully countered that the Prescription Drug plan was a deliberate ruse by the Republicans to deliver something that sounded good in a campaign speech, but was really a give-away to big-donor drug companies. More Republican cronyism and favoritism, and so forth. But, damn, talking politics in small towns is hard. You need to be polite, and that puts a hell of a crimp in take-no-prisoners political discussion. This guy isn't just my insurance agent, he's my neighbor. He lives two houses south of me. We pass each other and wave practically every day. Our kids went through school together. I know he's a Republican, but one of those guys who still think it's the party of Everett Dirksen and Leslie Arends. And he's an insurance agent for chrissakes, and one major key to bringing down the cost of heathcare is cutting out profit-taking middlemen who contribute absolutely nothing to the actual delivery of healthcare services. And what layer might that be?
In the end, I settled for a weak "the problem with the Prescription Drug Bill is that they tried to please too many people--no controls on drug prices, no one cut out of the action, everyone continuing to get their piece of the pie. If we're ever going to get health care costs under control, and make health care available to everyone, we're going to have to step on some toes," and left it at that.
But it got me thinking. This damn Prescription Drug Bill really is a Trojan Horse inside the walls. A really bad, horribly complicated, outrageously expensive travesty that the conservatives can point to and say, "This is what government healthcare looks like." Never mind that it's not, that none of the countries that have provided health care for their citizens for decades have anything that looks even remotely like this turkey. Never mind that they created the monster themselves. There are enough people like my insurance agent out there, busy people who kinda sorta occasionally keep half-an-eye on the news as they go about their lives, catching little bits and pieces here and there, and yet consider themselves fairly well-informed, who would fall for just such an assertion. People who don't see the government in terms of Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, but just as "government". If George W. Bush can get away with taking the credit for bills that were passed over his veto, then Republicans can get away with blaming the "natural incompetence of government" for the chaos of their own drug plan. And we need to be prepared to counter.
So I ask you--since I botched my own opportunity pretty miserably--how do we frame this issue? How do we talk politely to the woefully under-informed about Universal Health Care without having something like the Prescription Drug bill thrown in our faces? And what do we say when it is? When Harry and Louise are on the TV tearing their hair out trying to pick their prescription drug plan, how do we respond when they say, "...and now the Democrat Party wants to do it for all health care!" Because we'd better be more ready than I was.