Students of the Obamacare replacement effort were assigned two lessons in health care policy messaging in the past week, courtesy of comic television host Jimmy Kimmel and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-ID). Would the class like to guess who taught which lesson?
One speaker demonstrated the persuasive power of emotional assertions not grounded in reason or fact. The other speaker demonstrated the futility of using only reason and fact to persuade an emotional audience. These lessons are especially true of health care policy debates, which frequently and irrationally place the interests of the few ahead of those of the many, thereby failing to serve either group well.
In the opening monologue of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live on May 2, Kimmel shared a sobering, tear-filled story about his newborn son, Billy, who was rushed into lifesaving open-heart surgery days after birth:
“My wife was in bed relaxing when a very attentive nurse at Cedars-Sinai hospital … was checking him out and heard a murmur in his heart, which is common with newborn babies, but she also noticed that he was a bit purple, which is not common.”
He is right. Purple and baby don’t mix well. The slightest commerce between these nouns is a terrifying prospect for any parent, as I can attest from the experience of my daughter Betsy’s birth (which, I am thankful, was a far easier fix than Billy Kimmel’s complication). Fortunately, Billy’s problem appears to have resolved, too.
Kimmel eventually segued from telling his son’s birth story to defending the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which, Kimmel posits, enables babies to obtain lifesaving emergency procedures:
“We were brought up to believe that we live in the greatest country in the world, but until a few years ago, millions and millions of us had no access to health insurance at all. You know, before 2014, if you were born with congenital heart disease like my son was, there was a good chance you would never be able to get health insurance because you had a preexisting condition. You were born with a preexisting condition, and if your parents didn’t have medical insurance, you might not even live long enough to get denied because of a preexisting condition. If your baby is going to die, and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make. I think that’s something now, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, or something else, we all agree on that, right? I mean, we do.”
Kimmel concludes that because everyone agrees babies shouldn’t be left to die due to their family’s income level, Congress should vote to keep the ACA:
“Whatever your party, whatever you believe, whoever you support, we need to make sure that people who are supposed to represent us – and people who are meeting about this right now in Washington – understand that very clearly. Let’s stop with the nonsense. This isn’t football, there are no teams. We are the team, it’s the United States. Don’t let their partisan squabbles divide us on something every decent person wants. We need to take care of each other. I saw a lot of families there, and no parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life. It just shouldn’t happen. Not here.”
Certainly, no parent should have to make such a choice. What Kimmel appears to misunderstand, however, is that neither babies nor adults are denied emergency procedures in the United States due to their insured status or ability to pay.
Moreover, as Aaron Bandler wrote for The Daily Wire, “everyone wishes Kimmel’s baby all the best but it is not a case for Obamacare.”
For starters, Kimmel’s son was treated at a charity care hospital with a $233 million budget funded by community philanthropists. Kimmel’s story illustrates how effective charity care can be at delivering needed health care, in contrast to a centrally planned government system, Bandler writes.
Kimmel also misunderstands that before the ACA, employer-sponsored and government-sponsored health insurance plans were required to cover preexisting conditions. Everyone else represents the “individual market.” The number of people in this market with preexisting conditions who were unable to obtain health insurance before the ACA was less than 120,000-a slight percentage of the individual market, according to research Bandler attributes to Forbes opinion editor and health care policy expert Avik Roy.
The gravity and sincerity of Kimmel’s story of his son’s birth and emergency condition do not make his story relevant to Obamacare, 80 percent of whose beneficiaries obtain insurance through Medicaid (government-sponsored health insurance). Nor did Kimmel’s story stop the U.S. House of Representatives from passing the American Health Care Act (AHCA) to repeal major parts of Obamacare on May 4. But with more than 10.3 million views on YouTube, Kimmel’s emotional message sure was popular.
The same cannot be said for Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador’s message at a town hall meeting defending his vote for the AHCA, also on YouTube. “You are mandating people on Medicaid accept dying,” a constituent said. Labrador countered, “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” The crowd erupted.
Technically, Labrador is right, for reasons Bandler outlined for Kimmel fans. But mere facts do not a persuasive argument make-certainly not to an audience afraid the bill you’re trying to make into law will kill them (even though it won’t).
The AHCA is a long way from perfect, and House Republicans should have used it to give patients more control over their health care dollars than the bill would.
But instead of promising people the AHCA will not kill them, the Republican message should be what most people, including Obamacare enrollees, already know: Obamacare’s soaring premiums, uselessly high deductibles, limited choice of providers, and stranglehold on competition is killing them. The AHCA is not the cure, but it could prove a defibrillator.