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Debates Lead to Provocative Thoughts on Healthcare

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I tried really hard not to write this blog entry, to swallow my outrage and stifle my word processor. I chose something pleasant and calming the past few days…picking plums and blackberries on our farm…to try to talk myself down from the ledge of jumping into this media morass. For I knew that giving more pages and voice to these distractions would take up valuable time and energy that I could otherwise spend on trying to find solutions to healthcare reform.

But I cannot stay silent. Too many of usprobably the silent majority of us who are homeless between the polarizing rhetorics of Right and Leftare staying silent. Many of us have come to a place of cynical inevitability, complacency, even helplessness ("what can I do about it?") as these fear campaigns are suddenly waged to delay, disrupt, and distort healthcare reform and so many other important items on our national agenda. But it is hard for me to remain silent when the headlines come home to roost.

It was 4 or 5 days agobefore the euthanasia stories had swamped the airwaves. Our landline almost never rings except for the occasional telemarketer. And almost never after 9pm. But at 9:15pm, a close family friend called: "Hey, Eric, can I ask you a couple of questions about healthcare reform?" I didn’t have time to reply before the question flew out: "What’s this about enforced suicide, and are older people like me really going to have to take a class on suicide before getting healthcare coverage?"

I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t find words to even begin to respond. I finally said, in a tone more angry and condescending than I intended, "What!? Are you crazy? Do you seriously think Congress is working on a bill to make you go to class about suicide or is trying to get people to kill themselves when they get old or sick?"

"Well, it seems pretty real…a friend of mine forwarded me some of the language of the internet," came the sheepish response.

"And you believe this stuff?" I blurted out. "Call your friend back and tell them this is complete nonsense. I’ve read every line of every Congressional health bill I can get my hands on, and this just isn’t true. It’s another internet hoax. No one is trying to mandate classes or suicide or anything like that. Give me a break! You’ve got a master’s degree and should know better!" Then I went on to lecture this poor friend about the need for more critical thinking, the ways to research the facts, and the importance of speaking truth to "internet friends who forward this garbage." (While all of those things are true, I hope this friend will forgive my tone and feel free to ask questions again in the future, in spite of the way I reacted.)

Tonight, it was raining when I got home, so I watched the news on TV instead of picking fruit. The top local news storywith flying graphics and dramatic music scoring the emotional dramawas about Congressman Wu’s town hall in Portland, leading you to believe there was a riotous mob there against healthcare reform. My coworker had attended that same town hall in person and didn’t even mention any riotous behavior or "crazy" questioners. The vast majority of the meeting was a productive discussion and debatenot the sensation-selling, adrenalin-addicting clips shown on the news.

Then I watched Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News…with scary clips from the town hall with Arlen Specter showing a man yelling and screaming…and panning across the partisan posters from protesters who congregated outside the venue. Again, the camera (and editing) of the newscast showed the sensational soundbytes of a few extreme people, leaving you with the false feeling that these town halls are dangerous places and that there is a huge movement against healthcare reform. The actions and words of a few extremists grab the headlines while the silent majority watches in disbelief.

It is easy to push emotional buttons or to whip up a media frenzy around controversial issues: just throw in any of the buzz phrases in the title of this blog, and stir. It is easy to get caught up in the fear: I found myself with my Intel colleagues wondering out loud if we should cancel some town halls we were planning about personal health technologies. It is hard to portray a more nuanced, representative story of what is happening in a soundbyte. It is hard to come up with ideas for reforming healthcare, to negotiate and compromise with hundreds of constituent groups, and to change our collective attitudes and behaviors towards health.

We live in a world that can be frightening for real reasons: we are still learning to deal with terrorism on our own soil after 9-11; we are in the midst of a painful recession that is stealing away livelihoods from too many people; the specter of H1N1 haunts us again as we move towards autumn; and the economic threats of the age wave and healthcare costs are upon us. But the fear mongering around healthcare reform, made worse by the media megaphone of 24 by 7 "news" cycles, is a contagious virus that we cannot allow to spread. We have to find ways to inoculate ourselves against these emotional extremes…and to wash our hands of this epidemic of chronic fear.

We have to refuse to be distracted by emotional ploys and horrific headlines, remembering that the camera lens almost always aims for the extremes. We have to refuse to forward those crazy, fact-less emails that show up in our inbox, deleting them instead of perpetuating those fictional fears with our friends and family. We have to refuse to stay silent, while holding to the healthcare issues and ideas that really matter: giving everyone access, reducing costs, paying for quality over quantity, moving care to the home, focusing on prevention and early detection, and training up a 21st century healthcare workforce.

With that, I’ll go back to picking fruit. It’s a relaxing activity…that gives me the time and freedom and optimism and audacity…to believe that I can contribute to healthcare reform in America…and to remember that I have nothing to fear but fear itself.

related news:

TODAYshow.COM on msnbc.com | Chuck Todd, NBC News Chief White House Correspondent: 

The roots of rage at a town hall meeting, by Ian Urbina and Katharine Q. Seelye
The New York Times

TODAYshow.COM on msnbc.com | TODAY Exclusive
Sen. Claire McCaskill One-on-One