Did you notice the results of the latest polling published in the morning daily? No, not the headline-grabbing "which candidate's ahead if the voting were today" stuff; that's going to change back and forth a dozen times between now and election day.
Much more interesting to me was the sidebar story about which issues are most important to New Mexico voters. Vietnam didn't make the list of top 10 issues (maybe those infamous Swift Boat ads hadn't begun yet when the calling was being done).
Neither did the hard-to-pin-down facts about the military career of our commander-in-chief. Yet those are the two issues (to use the term "issue" very loosely) that seem to be garnering all the media attention and generating all the campaign trail heat as we head down the homestretch of the most important presidential election of our time.
The newspaper identified the top issues that voters are actually talking about as, predictably, the economy and the war in Iraq. What it didn't even see fit to comment on, though, was that the third most pressing concern to New Mexicans, just percentage points behind those top two, was health care.
Similar results are showing up all over the country. Americans (not just seniors; all Americans) want our health care system problems addressed by our elected officials. Americans want some assurances that we will be able to access and afford medical services when we need them. And Americans are getting very nervous that in the near future we won't be able to.
That is an enormous tidal wave of public anxiety about to break over our law makers' heads, the first floods of which were unleashed by the cynical, cruel, Medicare prescription drug measure foisted on us last year by a Republican Congress more intent on fluffing up the profits of pharmaceutical corporations than on realistically grappling with the problems faced by our aging population.
Leadership has often been described as that quality which enables some people to discern quickly what the mood of a group is about to be, and then having the reflexes and agility to rush to the head of the parade before anyone else.
I like that description. It accurately captures what I have seen over and over again in successful politicians, regardless of their philosophical persuasion. The ones that get in trouble are the ones that try to move the public in a direction it isn't prepared to go. The ones who get too far out of step with the voters are those who stubbornly listen to one segment of the body politic, some fringe group with an agenda so self-serving that it can no longer be disguised to pass for anything remotely like the public good.
So I would like to suggest that whoever on the national scene (and on a smaller scale in New Mexico) picks up the banner of health care reform and positions himself or herself at the front of the parade will find a very active and enthusiastic following.
There is anger out across this country over what has been happening. Twenty percent increases in health care premiums (and that's for Managed Care, for crying out loud, not for one of those Cadillac programs) are sending blood pressure sky high in small businesses everywhere. It isn't surprising that many are opting to drop health care benefits. The cry is now to provide tax breaks for businesses that still bite the bullet and offer group coverage. But when premiums lurch upward annually the way they will for the foreseeable future, tax credits aren't going to ease the pain much.
The fact is that many businessmen are starting to realize that health care cost increases amount to an added tax burden. Government keeps expecting employers to pick up an ever-larger slice of the costs. That really is just a way of shifting responsibility (and cost) to business and away from government. So why should the employers pay those costs? Most countries haven't burdened their private employers with that responsibility, which gives them a built-in competitive advantage compared to American industries.
And if you want to understand why the current economic "recovery" is failing to meet expectations for full-time job creation, you don't have to look a whole lot farther than the fact that most companies will do anything imaginable to avoid having to sign up full-time workers. The risks of financing their health care are the main deterrent.
The situation is, bluntly, in need not of reform but of replacement. Americans now spend twice as much on health care as most industrial countries—and get half as much medical access in return. We cannot continue to throw good money after bad and be surprised at the poor outcomes.
The number of our citizens without health insurance, the number who are bankrupted by health care costs and the number who utilize too-expensive and inappropriate levels of care are all symptoms of a health care system that is a disaster. We desperately need a new approach, new thinking, not recycled approaches primarily designed to preserve profit margins for those who now are mismanaging care.
When an American politician shows the gumption to tackle this matter, there will be a huge procession of the citizenry ready to follow her (or him) anywhere. I can't wait.