Alibi V.17 No.8 • Feb 21-27, 2008 

Ortiz y Pino

Selling Health Care Reform

Gov. Richardson is upset the Legislature didn’t pass his proposal for health care reform and is threatening to call it back into Special Session to do just that. I have some advice for him (not that he has ever asked for it): Don’t.

No, actually, my advice is more specific: “Please don’t!”

Two e-mails I received the other morning on the topic of health care reform explain why I make this plea.

The first is from someone who has insurance coverage now that he is happy with, someone who signs his message “Mike.”

“I think it would be ideal if everyone could have free health insurance; I also think it would be nice if every licensed driver would receive a new car each year. The reality is that it comes down to cost. NM cannot afford to give everyone health insurance. Please vote against any bill that would encumber the taxpayers of NM with more taxes.”

The second is from someone who has insurance coverage now that he is not happy with. Let’s call him “Terry.”

“I just paid $3,000 out-of-pocket for a diagnostic work-up for my wife because our insurance company refused to cover it. How much longer are we going to have to put up with the greedy predatory health insurance industry?”

Notice that neither Mike nor Terry is included among the 400,000 New Mexicans who have no health insurance. These two are already “covered.” The governor’s package would impact them only incidentally: He is proposing that everyone in the state should have the kind of coverage Terry has … and that Mike and Terry (with some of the money they pay for taxes) should help pay for this.

The problem is that people’s opinions differ wildly on whether this is a good idea or not. And while the governor may have staked his position clearly, what he’s asking the Legislature to do is ignore the cacophony of opinion from the voters and to place (blindly) their trust in him.

I’ve been studying health care reform for 20 years. I’m convinced a single-payer approach makes the most sense, is the cheapest overall and the fairest. But it doesn’t matter what I believe; the issue is (under our system) never decided on the basis of logic, mathematical clarity, reason or elegance.

We respect those qualities, may even praise them. But when it comes to voting, to making decisions, the overriding factor in our greed-based society is always going to be the pocketbook … and hang the elegance and logic.

Terry wants health care reform and he wants it now!--because our current system is cutting deeply into his pocketbook. Mike doesn’t want health care reform because he has not been sick lately and doesn’t want his pocketbook tapped to pay for anyone else’s health care.

I believe Mike’s tune would change rapidly if he got sick and bumped headlong into the reality of how little his loyalty to the private insurance industry will count for when they decide what sliver of his medical bills they will deign to cover—or not.

I also know pointing that out to him now is not likely to persuade him.

So in a nutshell, what the governor needs to understand is that the people aren’t with him on this one … at least not yet. I’m a legislator and I’ve got to tell you, I haven’t received a single contact from a constituent urging me to support the governor’s plan. That’s important.

Until he gets out and talks to the voters (of New Mexico, not Iowa or New Hampshire) about health care; until he decides to exercise his vaunted powers of persuasion about why his proposal makes sense (yes, to our pocketbooks), I don’t think the legislators will budge.

And it isn’t because they want to wreck Richardson’s important initiatives—it’s because ultimately, the Legislature listens to the people, not the governor. His past victories (and there have been many) were never the result of coercive tactics or threatening gestures aimed at the lawmakers.

They came about in every instance because either Richardson convinced the voters of the wisdom of one of his brainstorms and let the voters pressure the legislators into going along with it, or (more often) because Richardson had his ear attuned to the voice of the people and channeled them to the Legislature.

In either case, it was the folks back home, not thunder and lightning pouring down from the Fourth Floor of the Roundhouse, that herded the many independent, feral cats of the Legislature into heading in the same direction.

I don’t know what his plan could cost my constituents. And I am skeptical of many of the basic assumptions of his plan. I am frightened by the information from Massachusetts about what’s happening as Mitt Romney’s similar reform approach has gone into operation. And philosophically, my heart belongs to the single-payer model.

Still, if I were getting lots of messages from people in my district saying they think the governor’s plan ought to be tried, and that they understand why it should be given a chance, I’d have to listen.

So, Governor, my advice is to take your plan to the people. If you really want to prod the Legislature into action, stop threatening it and instead sell your vision to the voters. They’ll do your pressuring for you. You don’t need a Special Session to do that.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail