In “Scott’s Story and the Election” Mr. Kristof says the experience of a college friend who lacked health insurance has lessons for us and our country. Ms. Collins, in “Women and the Men Who Yell,” says the women of America enjoy a good pander as much as anybody else, but could we cut down on the shouting and barking? Here’s Mr. Kristof:
I wrote in my last column about my uninsured college roommate, Scott Androes, and his battle with Stage 4 prostate cancer — and a dysfunctional American health care system. I was taken aback by how many readers were savagely unsympathetic.
“Your friend made a foolish choice, and actions have consequences,” one reader said in a Twitter message.
As my column noted, Scott had a midlife crisis and left his job in the pension industry to read books and play poker, surviving on part-time work (last year, he earned $13,000). To save money, he skipped health insurance.
A year ago, he encountered difficulties urinating and didn’t see a doctor in part because of the cost. By the time the prostate cancer was detected, it had spread to his bones.
“I blew it,” Scott told me several times. He repeatedly acknowledged that he should have bought insurance and should have seen a doctor as soon as his symptoms appeared.
Scott showed immense courage in telling his story. He worried that his legacy would be an unflattering article spotlighting his foolishness, yet he went ahead for two reasons. First, he said that readers might learn from his mistakes and call a doctor about that suspicious lump or mole. (If that’s you, do it now!) Second, he said he hoped that his story would help readers see the need for universal health care, so that others wouldn’t suffer as he has.
That’s in part what this election is about. If President Obama is re-elected, Obamacare will stay in place and health insurance will become close to universal in 2014. In contrast, Mitt Romney has promised if elected to work to repeal Obamacare — and any American who made a bad health care decision would continue to suffer.
To many of my readers, that’s fine.
“Not sure why I’m to feel guilty about your friend’s problem,” Terry from Oregon wrote on my blog. “I take care of myself and mine, and I am not responsible for anyone else.”
Bruce wrote that many people in hospitals are there because of their own poor choices: “Smoking, obesity, drugs, alcohol, noncompliance with medical advice. Extreme age and debility, patients so sick, old, demented, weak, that if families had to pay one-tenth the cost of keeping the poor souls alive, they would instantly see that it was money wasted.”
That harsh view is gaining ground, particularly on the right. Pew Research Center polling has found that the proportion of Republicans who agree that “it is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves” has slipped from 58 percent in 2007 to just 40 percent today.
Let me offer two counterarguments.
First, a civilized society compensates for the human propensity to screw up. That’s why we have single-payer firefighters and police officers. That’s why we require seat belts. When someone who has been speeding gets in a car accident, the 911 operator doesn’t sneer: “You were irresponsible, so figure out your own way to the hospital” — and hang up.
To err is human, but so is to forgive. Living in a community means being interconnected in myriad ways — including by empathy. To feel undiminished by the deaths of those around us isn’t heroic Ayn Rand individualism. It’s sociopathic. Compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but of civilization.
My second argument is that if you object to Obamacare because you don’t want to pay Scott’s medical bills, you’re a sucker. You’re already paying those bills. Because Scott wasn’t insured and didn’t get basic preventive care, he accumulated $550,000 in bills at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center, which treated him as a charity case. We’re all paying for that.
Scott and I spoke on Sunday morning about whether his story might move some critics of health care reform. He was weakening and mused that he probably didn’t have long. A few hours later, Scott slipped into a coma. He died Monday morning.
We can’t be certain that the cancer would have been found earlier, when it was more treatable, if Scott had been insured. But it’s a reasonable bet. Researchers have estimated that one American dies every 20 minutes for lack of health insurance.
In other countries, I’ve covered massacres, wars, famines and genocides, and they’re heart-rending because they’re so unnecessary and arbitrary. Those massacred in the Darfur genocide in Sudan might be alive if they had been born in Britain.
That’s how I feel about Scott. His death was also unnecessary and might not have occurred if he had lived in Britain or Canada or any other modern country where universal health care is standard and life expectancy is longer.
So Scott, old pal, rest in peace. Let’s pray that this presidential election will be a milestone in bringing to an end this squandering of American lives, including your own.
“Savagely unsympathetic” is one of the clearest descriptions of the current crop of Republicans that I’ve heard in a long time. Thanks, Nicholas. Here’s Ms. Collins:
Maybe someday, the voters of 2012 will be telling their grandchildren where they were when Mitt Romney evoked Women in Binders.
By then, of course, they will have gotten a little fuzzy about the details. Maybe they’ll tell the kids that, in the end, the whole election came down to the time Mitt Romney put Big Bird in a binder on the car roof.
President Obama has had his ups and downs in this campaign, but Romney has a near-monopoly on interesting imagery. His most famous moment in Tuesday’s debate came when he recounted how, when he came into office as governor, he was upset that all the applicants for top jobs were men. “I went to a number of women’s groups … and I brought us whole binders full of women,” he recounted proudly.
It was the anecdote that launched a thousand quips. Riffing on “Dirty Dancing,” tweeters announced: “Nobody puts Baby in a binder.”
Later, it turned out that the binders in question had actually been submitted to Romney by a Massachusetts group that had been formed to push for more women in important state government posts. Still, it was admirable that Romney followed through.
At least for the first few years of his administration. The Boston Globe reported that by the time he left office, the proportion of women at the top had dwindled to below the level he found when he arrived.
(When it comes to the ever-evolving identity of Mitt Romney, we tend to think of Massachusetts Mitt as the progressive, empathetic version. But there were actually several different Bay State incarnations. The one who got elected governor wanted to ban assault rifles, close down polluting power plants and had emotional memories of a relative who died from an illegal abortion. About halfway through the term, that guy began to evaporate. He was replaced by a Presidential Prospect Mitt who opposed stem cell research, refused to cooperate with other governors on clean air initiatives and lost interest in the binder.)
But about the debate. You may have noticed that both candidates tried to score points with women. Obama pointed out that the first bill he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and that he’d fought to make sure all health insurance policies include coverage for contraception. Romney suggested there were “bureaucrats in Washington” who wanted to tell women whether they can use birth control, and he fiercely announced that if they tried, he would be very much opposed.
Women enjoy a good pander as much as anybody else, and it was great to have the candidates tackle issues like equal pay and reproductive rights. Although it was a little weird that the two men vied for female favor by interrupting and barking at one another like a Worst Boyfriend.
If there are significant voter gender differences, one of them is the female aversion to yelling and squabbling. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the president’s best moment of the debate was delivered on a stage set the day before by his highest-ranking female cabinet member.
The subject was Libya. The Romney camp has continually — and appallingly — tried to politicize the tragedy in Benghazi. But the administration’s position on what had led to the attack that killed four Americans has been garbled. Its various explanations for why security wasn’t better have sounded defensive.
On Monday, in an interview with CNN, Hillary Clinton simply said that she was responsible, as the secretary of state, for whatever had happened. Then during the debate on Tuesday, the president picked up, and improved upon, the message. The administration, he said, was “going to find out exactly what happened, everybody will be held accountable, and I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there. Because these are my folks, and I’m the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home, you know that I mean what I say.”
The virtues of saying “the buck stops here” are so obvious that it’s a wonder there isn’t more of it. On Tuesday, Obama was definitely staking his claim on the buck.
“Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I’m the president. And I’m always responsible,” he said.
Americans have a fairly high tolerance for political fights about who’s to blame for our problems. But when it comes to national security, we expect clarity and sobriety. To a man or woman. The president hit just the right note.
Meanwhile, Clinton was flying back from Peru, trying to get home in time to watch the debate. On the plane, she brushed aside any invitations to expand on her statement, or comment on critiques from the Romney camp.
“I don’t want to go there,” she said. “Let’s just everybody take a deep breath — figure out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”
Nobody puts Baby in a binder.