Boehner's health delusion

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

With a John Boehner speakership fast approaching, I dutifully read up on the man. I learned he is a Midwestern fellow, born (like us all) into the virtuous lower middle class, one of 12 siblings and a man whose early career, in an unironic homage to "The Graduate," was in plastics. What I did not know - what was missing entirely from my reading - is that he might be French.

Or Japanese. Or Finnish or British or even German. Whatever the case, this much is clear: No American, certainly not one about to occupy a leadership position in our government, could possibly call the American health-care system "the best health care system in the world." Boehner did just that last week. He was having an out-of-country experience.

For statistical refutation, we need only refer to the CIA's World Factbook (no lefty think tank, to be sure) and check the health statistics. The United States is 49th in life expectancy. Our proud nation bests the Libyans in this category but not Japan, France, Spain, Britain or, of course, Italy. You not only live about two years longer in Italy, but you eat better, too.

The same doleful situation applies to infant mortality. This is the saddest of all categories since it relates to infants who don't make it to their first birthday. The CIA tells us that the nations that do the worst in this category are, not surprisingly, mostly in Africa. Then comes much of Asia and parts of South America, but when you start getting up there a bit, Cuba does better than the United States and so do Italy, Hungary, Greece, Canada, Portugal, Britain, Australia and Israel, among others. This should be an embarrassment to us all - but, clearly, it is not. To Boehner, these figures - infants dying before they can get a cupcake with a single candle - don't exist. Rather than improve the situation, he might want to cut the CIA's appropriation.

Looking elsewhere - think tanks, etc. - Boehner might come across a category that health-care expert and former Post reporter T.R. Reid labels "avoidable mortality." Among the richest nations, the United States is 19th of 19. America is awful at treating asthma, diabetes and kidney disease. If you have any of these, it's just your bad luck that you're not Japanese or French . . . or, really, anything other than American. The United States does do well with breast and prostate cancer, but these are represented by politically potent lobbies. See, we can do better when we want to.

Boehner's Panglossian sentiment is shared by Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader who has vowed to roll back the Obama health-care program. If McConnell thinks America has the best of all health systems, who can blame him? When in 2003 he underwent heart bypass surgery, it was at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. This is a government facility staffed by government employees - what is sometimes called socialized medicine. His heart did fine, but he left the hospital untreated for Rampant Endemic Hypocrisy, a communicable disease that has swept the GOP and left it vulnerable to irrationality. Michele Bachmann, who peddled the absurdity that President Obama's overseas trip was costing $200 million a day, stands in mortal peril of succumbing to it.

Almost 51 million Americans lack health insurance. They postpone treatment, seeking it at the last minute from emergency rooms - never a pleasant experience, never a cheap experience and often too late. Obama's health-care bill was meant to address this problem, among others. It was not a perfect bill and it may turn out to be the wrong way to go. But a difference in approach, even a difference in ideology, cannot change the need for reform. The United States spends upward of 17 percent of its gross domestic product on health care. European nations spend about 8 percent - and their citizens are actually healthier. Republicans oppose Obamacare. Fine. But where is their plan? Not the lauded status quo. As we can see, that's a terminal disease.

For Democrats, there's hope in Boehner's chirpy pronouncement. It shows a GOP out of touch with reality, a party of Marie Antoinettes, babbling total nonsense about health care. The same swing voters who used the election to hurt the Democrats might learn that America's health-care system is No. 1 only in health-related bankruptcies. It is best in the world only for the rich and the amply insured. Everyone else can crawl away, unseen by the next speaker of the House of Representatives - a jolly, detached fellow who thinks he lives in another country entirely.

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