Your Health Care: The Government’s Responsibility

This morning Nicholas Kristof, back from reporting on how bad things are in Iraq, is telling us how bad things are in America.
Kristof reports from his home town, Yamhill, Oregon, where state budget cuts have led, he says, to “a real, measurable drop in the quality of life.” Kristof cites cutbacks in education, law enforcement, and so on, concluding that “What’s growing in Oregon is anger.” The angry person he quotes, however, is a county commissioner–“people should be on the streets with pitchforks, saying ‘Revolt! Revolt!'”–so it’s a little hard to tell what the actual man on the street, who has resolutely opposed tax increases in opinion surveys, is thinking.
The centerpiece of Kristof’s column is the story of Douglas Schmidt, a 37-year-old epileptic who received free anti-epilepsy medicine under a state program. In February he was dropped from the program in one of the state’s budget cuts because his income was not low enough; a week later he had a seizure and went into a coma. His future, as described by his “domestic partner,” is bleak: “He’s very impaired. He can’t talk. He does not respond to commands. But his eyes do move, and they do constrict when light shines in his pupils. That’s on his better days.”
Kristof didn’t have to do much sleuthing to find Mr. Schmidt; he is the poster boy for those who attack the state’s budget cuts and has been featured in a number of news stories. Reading those stories, the following facts emerge: the drugs in question cost $13 a day, or about $400 a month; Schmidt received $642 a month in Social Security benefits; at the time of his seizure he was waiting for forms to arrive in the mail to allow him to participate in a “backup program” run by the pharmaceutical companies; in addition to his “domestic partner” he had, at a minimum, a mother (quoted in the newspapers saying the state “murdered” her son) and a sister. Apparently, during the seven days after his medicine ran out, neither Mr. Schmidt, his “domestic partner,” his mother, his sister, nor any of his other friends or relatives was willing to spend the $91 that would have been needed to keep him from having seizures. All of these individuals believed that they had no obligation to spend money to preserve Mr. Schmidt’s health. That’s the state’s responsibility.
Or, apparently, President Bush’s. Kristof isn’t really interested in Oregon’s state finances; if he were, he would perhaps note that notwithstanding the allegedly draconian budget cuts of last year, Oregon’s spending has doubled in the last decade. (Which explains, presumably, why Oregon’s voters refused to accept more tax increases as the cure for the state’s budget shortfall.) What Kristof is interested in is bringing down President Bush and returning the Democrats to Washington: “Will this fury [the “fury” is the county commissioner who thinks Oregonians should take to the streets with pitchforks] be directed at President Bush in the next election? I’m not sure. People here complain vigorously about state or local officials, but Mr. Bush seems an afterthought. Still, when the topic comes up, many people are scathing about the Bush administration’s spending $4 billion a month in Iraq while letting small towns beg for scraps.
“Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, thinks that President Bush will have to bail out the states next year. ‘There’s a presidential election coming up,’ he said in an…interview….’And when the administration feels the hot breath of the public on its neck, they’re going to appropriate more resources to the states.’ Mr. Kulongoski says that when he and other governors get together, they wonder: What can Washington be thinking?'”
How can the federal government fail to bail the states out of the hole created by their own mismanagement and profligate spending? It’s a puzzler, all right. And a question that will be posed again and again–although not precisely in those terms–between now and next November.

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