Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Ironic? Definitely. Irenic? One Can Always Pray.

                                Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA)

                               Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA)

Like millions of Americans, I am praying for the recovery of Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise, the House Majority Whip who was critically wounded by a deranged gunman during an early-morning baseball practice nearly two weeks ago.   In the shooting, in which four others were injured, Scalise was only struck once, far from his most vital organs. However, the bullet traversed his hip, shattering bones and unleashing concussive forces that caused severe internal bleeding and organ damage. When he was medevaced off the field, he was reportedly conscious and in good spirits. By the time he arrived at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, in the District of Columbia, he was in critical condition: unconscious, and on the brink of death.  One hopes that the relative dearth of daily news about the congressman's progress is a good sign . . . the "No News Is Good News" syndrome. Indeed, as of the middle of last week, after three surgeries (with the prospect of several more to come), his condition had been upgraded to "fair."

Through no fault of his own, Rep. Scalise has now incurred hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of dollars of future medical expenses.  Fortunately, he is covered by some pretty good health insurance and thus will likely wind up being responsible for only a tiny fraction of these costs.  Now, contrary to the widespread urban legend that members of Congress receive free health insurance for life, Scalise and his colleagues are, ironically, covered under Obamacare.  They sign up through the District of Columbia exchange; the Federal Government pays about 70% of their monthly premium.  It's a good deal; especially for a member like Steve Scalise.  For contrary to the notion that all members of Congress are multimillionaires, Rep. Scalise is, according to the most recent figures (2015), the 19th poorest member of the legislative branch, with a net worth of at least minus $20,999.00  (Actually, this is a vast improvement; in 2007, the year he was first elected, Rep. Scalise reported a net worth of minus $421,438.00.)  

And here's where irony comes in:  Like virtually all of his Republican colleagues in the House, Rep. Steve Scalise voted to (mostly) repeal and (just about totally) replace the very system of healthcare which will save him from even greater and graver financial disaster. For without many of the Affordable Healthcare Act's (Obamacare) best-wrought clauses, Rep. Scalise - like somewhere around 20-24 million other Americans would - were he not a member of Congress - be in dire shape.  The "American Health Care Act" (ACHA) passed by the House back on May 4th,  includes an amendment that would allow states to obtain waivers from certain insurance requirements mandated by the Affordable Care Act. States could get waivers to: increase how much insurers can charge based on age, establish their own requirements for essential health benefits that plans must include, and allow insurers to price policies based on health status in some cases. That last waiver could lead to higher premiums for those with preexisting conditions who don’t maintain continuous coverage.  An amendment — penned by New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur — specifically exempts Congress and its staff from the effects of such state waivers.  It must be admitted that this was done for procedural, not political reasons a bit too arcane to be gone into in this piece. A second, stand-alone bill proposed by  Representative Martha McSally (R-AZ) would strike the exemption of Congress from state waiver provisions should the AHCA be enacted into law.   Crazy, no?  But in any event, Representative Scalise - like so many of his fellow Americans - is going to be way behind the financial eight-ball should this hastily-drawn, monstrously conceived legislation get to the president's desk for final approval.

A reasonable political observer might expect the case of Rep. Scalise to be brought up again and again in the AHCA debate.  After all, it is an enormous elephant in the legislative room.  But as reasonable as this might seem, it is not likely going to happen; neither Republicans nor Democrats are going to be mentioning the name "Steve Scalise" - unless attached to the words "Our thoughts and prayers . . ."  Why is this?  Well, as The New Republic's Brian Beutler succinctly put it in a recent article, "Republicans are the governing majority, they have no interest in letting Scalise’s ordeal become a symbol of anything related to health policy . . . . Democrats have been reluctant to politicize the shooting for different reasons: Scalise is a colleague, the dead shooter was a former volunteer for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, and the media surely would have punished anyone who interrupted the Kumbaya moment on Capitol Hill. Fascinatingly, since the ball-field shooting, none of the normal post-slaughter debate over "More guns vs. Better gun control" has been heard; and I mean nary a peep.  Perhaps this Kumbaya moment  in the case of guns will extend to the current healthcare debate.  Then again, perhaps that's a bit overly Pollyanna.  At least while we are praying for Rep. Scalise's recovery, we can pray for a bit more sanity.

The recently released Senate version of the ACHA (now called The Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017) is - if possible - even worse than that which passed the House last month.  Like the House version, it is ruthless, soulless and vicious; it ensures that healthcare premiums are going to become out of reach for older, less healthy Americans as more and more younger and healthier Americans decide they simply don't need coverage.  It will gut Medicaid, which is a lifeline for a tremendous number of Americans.  Consider that

  • 20 percent of Americans are enrolled in Medicaid;
  • 39 percent of children in the US are enrolled in Medicaid;
  • 49 percent of births are covered by Medicaid; and
  • a full 64 percent, or nearly two-thirds of nursing home patients, are covered by Medicaid. 

In a world ruled by sanity, insurance costs and healthcare deductibles are kept in check by having the maximum number of people - people of all ages and stages of well-being - sharing costs.  Republicans of all stripes - and some Democrats - have long argued that requiring people to purchase coverage is wrong, unconstitutional and even Socialistic.  Make no mistake about it: even greater than their hatred of "individual mandates" and "shared responsibility" is their love of extraordinarily generous tax cuts for their already hyper-wealthy backers and benefactors.

And yet, beyond the irony of Rep. Scalise's perilous condition during the very time healthcare is a central focus, is the possibility of the irenic moment this irony could provide.  For those who do not do crossword puzzles, the word irenic may be unknown.  It comes from the Greek word ειρήνη (eirēnē), meaning "peace."  In theology, it specifically  connotes the process of reconciliation between different denominations or sects of a religion.  And that is what this ironic moment could be providing: ειρήνη - a coming together, a reconciliation between those who believe healthcare for all is a right, and those who hold that tax-cuts for the few is a given.  As The New Republic's Beutler wisely notes, "The best thing that could possibly come of Scalise’s shooting wouldn’t be some fleeting moment of political unity. It would be pulling Republicans back from the brink of trading American lives for tax cuts."

How ironic.

156 days gone, 1,301 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone