Socialized Medicine: The Voldemort of Health Policy

03 Aug

Realizing that not all of you may be familiar with the ubiquitous Harry Potter book series written by J.K. Rowling (now a line of major motion pictures) from which “Voldemort” hails, please allow me to explain briefly. Essentially, Lord Voldemort is the darkest of the dark wizards. He killed Harry’s parents when Harry was an infant, while Harry managed to survive. Ever since, Voldemort has been out to finish what he started, by killing Harry and assuming control of the wizarding world. The stories center around this relationship.

Everyone is so terrified of Voldemort that they refer to him simply as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”Everyone, that is, but the protagonists and heroes: Harry and his “mentor” Prof. Dumbledore. These two, it seems, possess the courage to face Voldemort and call him by his name.

“Socialized medicine,” it seems to me, is the Voldemort of health policy — it is “That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named.” Unless, that is, you’re an opponent of progressive health care reform, in which case it seems to be the go-to phrase. The trouble is, people are throwing these words around without any understanding of what they mean–just another instance of frames trumping facts.

I wanted to clear up some misconceptions about this notorious phrase, but first, I had to have a sense of what people already thought it meant. So, I posed an open question on Facebook: I’m soliciting definitions for “socialized medicine.” Whether or not you use the term, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. So tell me, what you do think it means? Be specific.

Here are some of the responses I received:

  • Government run, owned, or controlled.
  • A system under which the provision of medical care is owned and/or controlled by the state and paid for by its citizens.
  • It’s what lazy, brainless politicians and pundits call anything other than status quo, fee-for-service medical care. I hate it because it isn’t descriptive … medical care in Canada, England, France, South Africa, etc. are all so different, so saying it’s all “socialized medicine” doesn’t really tell me much.
  • Socialized medicine is healthcare administered by or on behalf of government. It is the opposite of free market medicine, where individuals freely choose providers, suppliers, insurers, and practitioners based on performance, value, and capabilities. With socialized medicine, the same “Statist” elites who created Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, TARP and Cash For Clunkers, assume control of that which is most precious to you, your life.

From this, I noticed two things. First, that people tend to respond to the phrase in a deep, visceral way. That is, no one hears socialized medicine and thinks little of it. It conjures up extremes on both sides of the debate. Second, the most accurate definition — government owned healthcare — is not being discussed in any capacity in the current health reform debate, but the phrase-which-must-not-be-named is being hurled around like crazy from the right. In fact, Jonathan Oberlander provides one of the best examinations of the topic.

Like Harry with Voldemort, I’m not afraid to call socialized medicine what it is: a completely nonsensical phrase that must be ousted from the debate. But evidence demonstrates that attempts to clarify the actual definition of socialized medicine, and to explain why it is an inaccurate label, are likely to do nothing but reinforce the frames of the anti-reform movement. They don’t care if they’re wrong. They just care that their words scare the bejesus out of people and win more support for their position.

So what are we to do? How can we take the discussion elsewhere? What alternative frames can we provide? Why are people so afraid of the government (which does not seek a profit) taking their money, but not worried that health insurers (who do seek a profit) are just as likely, if not more so, to take their money? How can we convince people that if reform is passed, they will wake up the next morning without noticing anything different, except that they won’t have to worry about how they will pay for their health care if something unexpected happens. I don’t have the answers, but I sure wish I did.

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Posted by on August 3, 2009 in Uncategorized


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