Hello, goodbye . . . and some predictions

DSCN1587I noticed something this morning. My dogs are oblivious to the calendar. The could not care less that it is Wednesday, or even the first day of a new year. They were ready to tackle the new day with the exact level of enthusiasm and ambition they display on any other day.

Dogs, unlike most people, live in the moment. They do not reflect on the past nor do they worry about what the future may bring. They have no regrets and apparently make no predictions.

Dogs are always more than ready to eat, play and love. I think that was the name of a movie starring Julia Roberts.

I have long since abandoned the idea of making New Year’s resolutions. I live by the motto that “expectations are pre-meditated resentments.”

Two years ago, I publicly pledged on these pages to do a better job in how I conduct political debates with friends, acquaintances and strangers:  I will listen more than I speak. I will ask those who disagree with me how they came to their conclusions; and I will push myself to consider and reflect upon the contrary arguments I encounter along the way.

That resolution seemed to go the way of so many other resolutions, but it still seems more important than quitting smoking, losing weight or better organizing my sock drawer. Thus, I offer the same resolution this year.

In many ways, 2013 was a good year, and I have much to be thankful for. But, there were also some challenges. I lost a good friend to suicide. My wife and I both racked up some huge medical bills and the future seems uncertain. But the future is always uncertain. That’s why it is the future. It is unknown, full of possibility and ripe with potential.

Dogs don’t make predictions. Dogs avoid resentment. Dogs have low expectations. Dogs ignore the calendar and live completely in the present.

We are not dogs, however. We are humans and strive to control our lives, our futures. We enjoy making predictions because it helps quell the anxiety of what is ahead: the unknown.

A few days ago, I asked some friends to submit their best predictions for 2014. Here they are:

The future’s so bright?

Governor LePage: winner or loser in 2014?

Governor LePage: winner or loser in 2014?

Bad News for the GOP: It would be hard to know that my friend John Lovell is a die-hard Democrat if he never opened his mouth or approached his keyboard. John and I spar frequently, and I have immense respect for his intellect, wit and compassion. But I was not at all surprised by his predictions, which included Republicans losing several Congressional seats. He predicted Sen. Collins will lose her bid for another term and that Gov. Paul LePage will lose his re-election bid, describing him as  “the worst governor in Maine history.”

Bad News for Democrats: Matthew Angotti of Saco has a different perspective: “Obamacare woes will continue, and partially, as a result, Republicans will keep the US House, take the US Senate and even take one Maine Legislative body. Further, LePage will be reelected as Governor with 41 percent of the vote. Also, Seattle wins the Super Bowl.

Karen Moore, a Biddeford native who now lives in Colorado, is one of my favorite political foes. She is feisty, stubborn and thoughtful. She is an enigma to me, and I doubt she has any idea how much I love debating political and public policy issues with her. Karen offered a hodgepodge of predictions, saying former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez will be found guilty of murder during his trial this year.

Karen also predicted that George Zimmerman will kill again; and that Paul LePage will lose the Blaine House to Democrat Mike Michaud, who will then become Maine’s first gay governor. She also predicted that Republicans will lose their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and that Democrats will maintain control of the U.S. Senate; and says that the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in favor of gay marriage in 2014.

Beyond politics, Karen predicted two “hurricane super storms” next fall – one of which, will hit Rhode Island, Mass and Maine. Sadly, she also predicted another mass shooting incident that will involve “50+ children” and  will be committed by “a card-carrying NRA member who passed background checks and was formerly “responsible”.

Zimmerman will kill again?

Zimmerman will kill again?

She also predicted that there “will be a huge pipeline disaster on US soil,” and that John Boehner will resign in disgrace. On a final note, Karen predicts that a former U.S. president (unnamed) “will pass away and there will controversy at the State funeral – such as Putin won’t be invited but the North Korean or Iranian dude will attend.”

Let’s pause here to pop a couple antidepressants or partake in some recreational drugs. Whew.

On a much lighter note, my friend Ernie Corrigan, a former reporter and political advisor to Tip O’Neil, predicted that Sarah Palin will travel to Maine to advise Gov. Paul LePage on “how to stop saying every crazy thing that comes into his head.” Coincidentally, he says,  Columbia Pictures announces the release of Dumb and Dumber III.

Corrigan also predicted that “Republican leaders will announce they are going to continue to try to scuttle ObamaCare with legislation they say will provide affordable health care insurance for all. They are calling it The Affordable Care Act and it is instantly embraced by Republicans as the cure for ObamaCare.”
Corrigan also predicted a major shift in federal domestic policy, when Congress “announces that it wants to spend $100 billion on mental health, saying it will reach out to people who appear to be talking to themselves while walking down the street.”  Verizon, Corrigan predicts, will immediately file a class action suit in federal court, claiming the government is targeting their customers.
Racial tensions will continue in 2014, according to Corrigan’s predictions: Democrats, he says. will announce they are going into federal court and charging Republicans with a persistent pattern of federal election violations aimed at keeping African-Americans from voting.  “During simultaneous press conferences, only African-Americans attend the Republican press conference and only white Americans attend the Democratic press conference.”
 Corrigan also places a high degree of confidence in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Corrigan predicts that Kerry will engineer a peace accord in the Middle East with agreement from Israel, Syria, Iran and Iraq and the PLO. Soviet leader Putin attacks the accord as an attempt to destabilize the region, he adds.

Palin: Coming to Maine in 2014?

Palin: Coming to Maine in 2014?

Corrigan also says the U.S.  jobless rate will drop below 6 percent for the first time in 15 years, and that Leonardo DiCaprio will win Best Actor for his performance in The Wolf of Wall Street.  Wall Street CEOs, according to Corrigan, will say the award confirms the strong work ethic of traders on Wall Street, despite the  film’s depictions of excessive patterns of group sex, infidelity, massive drug abuse and a persistent pattern of stock fraud and greed.”

Keeping it local, State Senator David Dutremble (D-Biddeford) predicts that Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, facing term limits, will challenge him in the June 2014 Democratic primary. Reason for this prediction?  “She has openly asked me to swap seats so she can have one term as Senator and I could take her Rep seat,” Dutremble said. “She previously said she didn’t originally run to play games and step down just so someone else could just have the seat, but now she has publicly endorsed another person for her  seat, leading me to believe she will challenge my seat. I have no proof, just a prediction.”
Former colleague and award-winning columnist John Swinconeck kept his tongue firmly in cheek with his predictions for 2014:
“Early one morning in 2014, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will wake up on a bed of Hefty bags outside a Portland night club wearing a torn, black cocktail dress,” Swinconeck opined. “Hung around her neck like a pendant will be the severed ear of “Fox and Friends” co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck. She’ll have no memory of what transpired the night before, she only knows that she is filled with a sense of peace she has not felt for years. That day, Sebelius sneaks aboard a freighter bound for Cairo. As the vessel sails from Casco Bay, Sebelius will offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the god of second chances, grateful that the voices in her head have finally ceased. Back in Washington, the tumult over the Affordable Care Act will continue.”
My friend Harvey Ardman, an accomplished writer and journalist, predicted that “Eliot Cutler will withdraw from the Governor’s race  two months (or more) before the election and [Mike] Michaud will collect most of his votes, winning handily over LePage.”
Jesse Ventura: Maine's next governor?

Jesse Ventura: Maine’s next governor?

See if you can guess the political leanings of my friend Sally Melcher McKeagney: Jesse Ventura moves to Maine in January 2014. He is drafted to run for governor. Ventura  wins in November. Governor LePage is very angry about the loss, so angry , he tries to blow up the PPH building. Though the explosions are little more than smoke and soft pops, LePage is forced to flee  to Jamaica.  He applies for refugee status.  Jamaica doesn’t really want him. They  offer to extradite him–they say they will even pay us to take him back. But the State of Maine cites his residency status–which is not Maine–and tells Jamaica “You’re on your own!”  Jesse Ventura turns out to be just as interesting as Paul LePage, and Democrats wonder how they can get Ventura to Jamaica.”

My friend Bob Meyers predicts that the Times Record newspaper in Brunswick will cease publication as a daily in 2014 and go to 2 or possibly 3 issues per week.
My friend Bob Mentzinger, editor of the Times Record, also predicted that George Zimmerman will kill again.  Mentzinger thinks LePage will be re-elected because Independent Eliot Cutler will remain in the race too long, waiting for a repeat of the 2010 surge.  On a final note, Mentzinger predicts the Carolina Panthers will win the Super Bowl, it will snow through April; and that the Dow will hit 18,000.
So there you go! Let the games begin and bring on 2014! Be careful out there, and remember: it’s never a bad idea to hold hands and keep your expectations in check.

An open letter to my fellow Republicans

Dear Congressional Republicans,

It is well past time for me to speak up and to make my own attempt to wake you from your delusional slumber.

Like you, I did not vote for President Obama in 2008, nor in 2012.

Like you, I have serious concerns and reservations about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Like you, I have concerns about our nation’s debt and federal spending that seems out of control.

Yes, I know that not a single member of our party voted in favor of ACA. Yes, I know that the law was passed with all sorts of political maneuvering and manipulation that left our party on the wrong side of the door, standing in the cold.

But none of that matters much today, does it?

Yes, before I proceed any further, please allow me to disclose that I am one of those despicable RINOs you hate so much. You know, a Republican In Name Only.

Why do you call me a RINO? Maybe it’s because I am unafraid of science. Maybe it’s because I believe ALL people are created equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation. Maybe because I believe our country is stronger when we provide a basic safety net to the most vulnerable among us. Maybe it’s because I own guns, but I just can’t figure out how so many of my brethren seem to ignore the very first words in the Second Amendment. You know, the words “Well-regulated.”

But enough about me, let’s talk about you.

I am proud of you for fighting the good fight. You have made more than 40 attempts to overturn the ACA. You lost every one of them, but your spirit and principles persisted. The fight was taken to the Supreme Court. The Chief Justice (a Bush-appointee) ruled against us. This all happened in compliance with the Constitution.

Bottom line? They won. We lost. Period.

Earlier this week, the person I love and cherish more than any other was lying on a hospital gurney and experiencing incredible pain. She was hooked to all manner of tubes and wires, she had been bleeding through the night. The doctors scrambled to figure out what was wrong.

Right then, right there, I did not care about anything else. I did not ask about the cost of her treatment. I was not afraid of bankruptcy or losing my home or my job. I cared about one thing, and one thing only: I wanted my wife healed.

My wife has MS. A few days before landing at the hospital, her doctor ordered her to stay home from work. She is a government employee. You know, one of those blood-sucking, lazy, incompetent freeloaders who is straining our local, state and federal budgets. Her work is rather meaningless. She investigates and helps prosecute people who seem to enjoy raping three-year-old girls or burning the arms and legs of 11-year-old boys.

She is an advocate and defender of these innocent children. She has been doing this work for the better part of two decades.

Now back to the hospital.

Yes, we have health insurance. But can you imagine what would happen to us if we did not? Even with health insurance, the incident is taking a toll on my family’s finances: deductibles, co-pays, prescriptions, outpatient appointments for follow-up. Gas and transportation costs to and from those appointments.

I work in the private sector. My productivity plummeted more than 90 percent last week.

The good news for the economy? There were no homemade dinners for me and my two boys. Sure, it was our choice, but we ate a lot of fast food or dined out at inexpensive restaurants: Rapid Rays, Pizza Hut and the Happy Dragon.

There were better uses for those dollars: savings, college funds, retirement, but we did not care. We were too distracted.

What were you doing during this time? You had your heels dug in, bloviating about principle and how damaging the ACA would be to our national economy.

Yes, I know the Democrats were calling you “murderers, thieves, terrorists” and so on . . ., but let them be silly children and petulant. Yes, I know that the president was doing everything possible to make the GOP look bad. So what? Put on your big boy pants and let’s take the White House in 2016.

I do not give a rat’s ass about who is to blame for the shutdown. I am looking for leaders. I care about who is going to return our country to a fully functioning status. That’s who I am going to vote for.

We have many fights ahead, but we lost the fight on the ACA. And frankly, it’s our fault.

Why? Well, think about your own wives, husbands, children or grandparents. Now imagine what it feels like when your insurance company says it will no longer pay because your loved one is too sick. You faithfully paid your premiums, but the insurance industry does everything in its power to limit your benefits.

Can anyone look me in the eyes and say rescission clauses and pre-existing condition clauses makes sense. Why did you let the Democrats outflank you on this?

Yes, maybe the ACA will be a complete disaster. But let the American people decide. If the ACA is really as bad as you proclaim, and if you stand back and accept your loss during a good and noble fight, then I assure you it will be 40 or 50 years before a member of the Democratic Party can get elected as a dog catcher.

I guarantee no one will blame the GOP if the ACA becomes a miserable failure.

The Republican Party is better than this. It’s time to show America leadership. This could be our finest hour, an hour of dignity, grace and conviction.

But we will not help anyone see our point of view more clearly by giving them a black eye. Let the Democratic Party sink or swim on the merits of legislation that our party never supported. I only suspect that the ACA is not quite as flawed as some of you believe.

I want to see our party survive to fight another day, to become strong enough to modify and improve the ACA by including more free-market principles, such as allowing consumers to purchase health insurance across state lines (There’s a Constitutional argument that could win).

I give you all an A+ for theatrics, but you have failed miserably in leadership.

 

 

 

 

Obamacare: Myths and Facts, Part I

health-care-debateSome say that the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act ( aka Obamacare) will provide the final nail in an already sluggish national economy, cost millions of jobs and further entrench every American into greater government dependence.

Others say the new law is a landmark piece of legislation that will literally save thousands of lives by making health care more affordable and accessible to all Americans.

Which argument is correct?

Given the hyper-inflated and strictly partisan rhetoric, it’s hard to know the answer and history will be left to judge the law’s merits and flaws.

In the meantime, I will attempt to examine the new law from both sides of the debate and offer some of the research I have conducted about the law. This week’s installment:

Comparison to Medicare: Myths and Facts

Supporters of the ACA enjoy pointing to the federal Medicare program as a primary defense of the new health care law.

This, in my opinion, is a dangerous proposition for several reasons.

1.) Medicare applies almost equally to all Americans, unlike the ACA, which primarily targets those Americans who do not have (by choice or income restraint) access to health insurance in the private marketplace. In fairness to the ACA, however, it’s important to note that the new law does offer universal protection to all Americans from rather abhorrent practices that were all too common in the health insurance industry, especially rescission clauses, coverage limitations and denial for pre-existing conditions.

The insurance industry argues those practices were necessary to stabilize costs, yet it remains difficult to assess how those savings were passed onto consumers. Thus, one of the more popular components of the new law requires insurance companies to direct a minimum 80 percent of premium revenue toward actual health care costs.

2.) Unlike the ACA, Medicare is not a mandate and you are not fined or otherwise penalized for choosing not to participate as a consumer in Medicare. Both programs, however, are supported by federal tax dollars. Supporters of the ACA argue that mandated participation is the only way to ensure an affordable marketplace. They also say that mandating purchase of health care coverage is no different from a state government mandating required liability insurance coverage on registered motor vehicles.

Comparing mandated auto liability insurance and requirements to purchase health insurance from the private sector is a seriously flawed rationalization that does not hold up under its own weight.

This is a matter of definition and it is outlined in law (both federal and state).

In the state of Maine, you are required by law to have liability auto insurance to drive a vehicle, as pointed out by Senator Angus King during his defense of the ACA on the senate floor earlier this week.

Senator King, formerly the governor of Maine, should know that both the Maine Department of Motor Vehicles and the Maine Legislature define driving as a privilege, not a right.

Maine’s law requiring auto liability insurance makes a lot of sense. It acknowledges and reinforces our shared responsibility to be accountable if we cause damage while driving, but it does not interfere with our rights to make choices, to exist as free people. We have the choice not to drive, whether we like to admit or not. Each of us has the option of walking, biking or using public or private transportation to get to and from wherever we want to go.

The ACA, however, requires, under penalty of law, every American to have basic health insurance. There is no choice. Either you have health insurance or the government is going to levy a fine upon you. Period.

Enter Chief Justice John Robert of the U.S. Supreme Court, a Bush-appointee who is considered a conservative. During a challenge to the ACA, Roberts tipped the scales of justice by opining that the ACA is a tax, and thus; the new law does not violate the Constitution because the power to levy taxes rests with the Congress and can be applied to all citizens.

ACA supporters, including President Obama cheered Roberts’ decision and validation of the new law. Strangely, those cheering previously argued that the new law is not a tax. But none of us should be surprised by the process of politics.

While participation in Medicare is voluntary, it should be noted that this federally subsidized form of health care is universally popular among both Republicans and Democrats.

3.) On a final note, Medicare was a bipartisan piece of legislation. The ACA was not. In fact, the ACA was passed via a straight party line vote only a few months before the Democrat Party was about to lose its majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the Senate, all eyes turned to the razor-thin party lines and the election of Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts  who would stunt a filibuster-proof majority.

On Christmas Eve in 2009, the Senate voted 60-39 in favor of the ACA. (Not a single Republican voted in favor, including Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who voted to approve a senate version in the Senate Finance Committee on the condition of subsequent changes she was promised in the final bill.)

The Senate version of the bill was approved in the U.S. House by a 219-212 vote on March 21, 2010 (Again, not one Republican voted in favor and they were joined by 34 Democrats in opposition. President Obama signed the bill on March 25, 2010.

Comparatively, there was a lot less drama regarding passage of Medicare in 1965. Of course, this happened before the internet.

In fact, Medicare was the result of much more compromise and its passage showed bi-partisan support.

In the Senate, 57 Democrats and 13 Republicans voted for passage of Medicare; seven Democrats and 17 Republicans voted against it.

In the House, 237 Democrats were joined by 70 Republicans in support of Medicare; 48 Democrats joined 68 Republicans in voting against it. The law was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on July 30, 1965.

Those who would say modern-day partisanship is to blame for the party line vote on the ACA, should be reminded that Democrats and Republicans have been able to hash out bipartisan compromises regarding updates and amendments to Medicare as recently as this year. Of course, this dynamic gives credence to Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s statement that the ACA can be “tweaked” as it moves forward.

Next: The financial implications and benefits.

Puttin’ on the Ritz

I don’t always agree with Oralndo Delogu, but when I do – - – I shout it from the rooftop.

Delogu is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a well-known policy wonk. He is also a frequent contributor to the Forecaster group of weekly newspapers in southern Maine.

With the increasingly controversial Affordable Health Care law looming on the near horizon, Delogu’s most recent column moneyraises a point that has been buried beneath the mounds of political rhetoric and stunning complexity of the new law.

In a nutshell, how do we make health care more “affordable” without addressing the skyrocketing cost of healthcare — even in the non-profit sector?

The first half of Delogu’s column focuses upon the fading memories of the Occupy Wall Street movement and all of its garbled rage toward corporate profits. But the second half focuses like a laser on the growing income disparity found in one of Maine’s largest non-profit health care providers. Delogu shares data he uncovered by Mainebiz about Maine Medical Center.

The state’s largest hospital, which is also Maine’s fourth largest employer, recently announced that it would be cutting more than 200 jobs. The hospital blames the usual suspects: uncompensated care, lower insurance payouts, etc.

But Delogu sniffs something else in the air.

According to Mainebiz, Maine Medical Center is the second largest nonprofit corporate entity in the state, with more than $1 billion in assets.

But here’s where it gets interesting:  Of the 27 highest paid health-care professionals in the state, 25 were associated with a “non-profit” hospital and seven of them are or were employed by Maine Med.

Delogu writes: “Based on 2010 salary data, the average annual salary of these seven physicians or executives was just under $1 million . . . one might ask how many hundreds of employees (at these 13 Maine non-profit hospitals) have annual salaries between $636,000 and say, $300,000?

Although there is plenty of evidence to suggest some outrageous behavior in the private-sector world of corporate America, it’s refreshing to see some analysis that is willing to examine other pieces of the puzzle.

Bravo, professor! Bravo!

Balance and perception aka “Shit happens”

An obvious aliment

Over the last few days, I have learned some valuable lessons.

First and foremost, I was reminded this week that I am extraordinarily blessed to have a diverse cadre of superior friends and family members.

I also learned a valuable lesson about ladders, not to mention a very painful experience that drove home the importance of why access to affordable and quality health care is so important for our national security.

But having so much down time has also allowed me to reflect on at least two other subjects: balance and perception.

During this presidential election season we have all heard a bunch of rhetoric about “self-reliance” and about “being in this together.” But which philosophy is correct?

Just like working with a ladder, the most important lesson is too often forgotten: it’s all about balance.

And we lose our balance when our perceptions become too narrowly defined.

A week ago, I broke my left arm in two different places while helping my sons with their landscaping business. The injuries, although significant, will eventually heal.

These last few days have been tough. It’s amazing how much you take for granted the use of two working arms. For example, try zipping up your pants with one arm. Or opening a bottle of pain meds; typing or driving a vehicle with a standard transmission.

Most people understand those limitations. They instantly empathize, and are quick to offer assistance. After all, my injuries are very obvious. My arm is either in a sling or set into a wrap-around corset to keep it in place. I have visible wounds on my legs and my elbow.

Strangers ask what happened with sympathetic voices, and they often share with me their own similar experiences. My friends laugh with me about how the accident happened. It’s okay and acceptable to make jokes about it.

We are comfortable with physical injuries. They do not frighten us. Shit happens.

Anyone who has ever smashed their elbow into a 3-inch-thick slab of stone knows that it is a painful injury. They know why you need to take it easy and sometimes need the use of medication to cope or just sleep through the night.

I say all this because these experiences provided me with a very stark contrast to my much less obvious injuries; the disease that is invisible to the eye, that is masked by perception.

On balance (no pun intended) my mental illness is far more painful than a broken arm. But you can’t see it, and I am reluctant to show it to you.

Imagine a disease that rarely allows you to sleep through an entire night. A disease that constantly impacts your perception of the world around you; a disease that clouds your judgment, alters your reality and makes it almost impossible to get out of bed.

Imagine an intense level of pain that without medication would have you think every hour of every day about ending your life; a disease that inhibits your ability to maintain relationships and function as a productive member of society.

Imagine having a disease that is commonly ridiculed and often dismissed as nothing more than “feeling sorry for yourself.”

I live with the challenges of that disease every day. I fight it with every fiber of my existence, only to know that it will never go away; that there is no cure or remedy.

I refuse to allow my broken arm to alter my life. This last week has been one of the busiest and most challenging weeks of my professional career, and I have risen to each and every challenge.

Am I bragging? Yes, but only to make a point. This is the way the overwhelming majority of people who suffer from a mental illness operate. They struggle through each day. They go to work. They mask their pain. They pay their bills. They follow the law. They take their meds and follow their doctor’s orders.

They wince when they hear the words “sicko, whack job and nut case,” but they swallow and stay silent for fear of being labeled, judged or excluded.

They are just like you. They are your neighbors, your friends and your co-workers. They did not choose to become sick any more than you would choose to fall off a ladder. They are some of the most self-reliant people you will ever meet. They have abundant courage and determination.

We all have limitations. The trick is learning to balance and to expand your range of perception. With those tools, you can fix just about anything.

I don’t wanna be right

The most vocal supporters of President Obama’s push to reform our nation’s health care system will invariably say that health care is a “fundamental right.”

The so-called “right to affordable health care” has become the mantra and favorite talking point for those who say health care in the United States ought to look a lot more like it does in other countries, including Canada, Norway, Sweden or Denmark.

These folks generally support a single-payer system of health care, which resembles the current Medicaid program and effectively eliminates the need for private insurance.

But is health care — or even access to health care — a right?

In our first installment (Money for Nothing), we followed up on questions posed by Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant on his Facebook page:

So the moral question is: What should a society do in such situations? What should government do? Do we act, or do we allow the laws of Darwin to supersede our compassion, integrity and our humanity? The system is broken. . .”

Although we previously discussed the difference between health “insurance” and health “care,” Casavant’s questions also beg a discussion about where morality and government should — or should not — intersect.

Casavant’s questions also prompt a more focused pondering of how our nation defines “rights.”

The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is probably a good place to start when examining the concept, definition and limitations of “rights” held by the American people:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Reading that sentence it becomes crystal clear our nation’s Founders understood basic rights come from a higher power than government. And this is a fundamental point.

Government cannot bestow rights; otherwise government can take away rights.

Your rights are yours, with or without a government.

The government’s limited role, as defined by both the Declaration and the ensuing Constitution, is to secure and defend your individual rights as part of a much larger group.

But the Declaration of Independence also opens the door for a legitimate discussion and debate  about other “rights” beyond Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, which are described as being “among” other, non-specified rights.

The argument for health care as a right gained further legitimacy when our Founders drafted the Constitution. It is within this document that our Founders more fully explored the concept of government’s appropriate role in promoting the “general welfare.”

Although the subject of health care is not discussed in either the Declaration or the Constitution, it could be reasonably construed as much of a “right” as public education — another topic not specifically discussed in those documents.

During our nation’s formative years, there was no such thing as public education. Education was reserved for the privileged few who could afford it.

Today, however, most people generally agree that our nation is better off when our citizens have – at minimum — a certain level of education.

Although our nation continues to grapple and debate public education funding, those costs and the ensuing delivery system is much easier to control than the cost and delivery of health care.

And here’s where it gets really tricky.

If we declare health care as a “right,” how does that impact your other rights as an individual?

If the government provides your healthcare from cradle to grave, then does it not follow that the government can dictate your health choices and even many of your lifestyle choices?

If we allow government to take care of us, are we not abdicating our individual pursuit of happiness?

I moved out of my parents’ home because I was ready to enjoy my adult freedoms. I wanted to come and go as I pleased. I wanted to make my own choices about what I eat, when and where I sleep and all the other benefits of freedom.

If my pursuit of happiness includes a poor diet that includes a daily regimen of Big Macs and French Fries, are you responsible to help pay the cost of my inevitable need for a heart transplant?

We have established standards and limitations for public education.

We accept the fact that not every child will be able to attend Harvard or Yale. Of course, you have the “right” to apply, but those universities also have the right to reject your application.

If you want to make the moral case for public health care, what happens when your health care contradicts your neighbors rights to his/her religious beliefs?

During the Vietnam war, even our military made accommodations for drafted citizens to be conscientious objectors. If you are Catholic, should you be required to help pay for abortions and contraceptives?

Where do your rights as an individual end — or start — in a society that provides you with health care?

How much of your liberty are you willing to sacrifice for your safety?

One of the most ardent opponents of smoking was Adolph Hitler, a man who envisioned a nation of supreme and physically fit citizens. Mentioning Hitler in this debate is intended to be inflammatory, only if to give us pause.

If you have the right to health care, does that mean that other people should financially support that right? If so, are there any limitations to how much health care any one individual wants or needs?

These are legitimate questions and not very convenient for either side of the debate.

If we propose that health care is a right, then we will need to completely reconstruct our health care system. We would have public doctors and nurses, whose employment contracts and salaries are negotiated by the government — just like teachers.

We would also have public health care clinics that are less desirable than their private counterparts.

In the end, those with money would have better access to service than those without money.

Sound familiar?

The hypocrisy found in these arguments is overwhelming.

We want our choices. We want our freedom, but we would prefer that the consequences of our individual choices are funded — at least in part — by other people.

Maybe it’s just time to move back in with mom and dad.

If you would like to further explore the arguments for and against the concept of health care as a right, you may want to visit this website.

Money for nothing

August 2009: Large crowds in Portsmouth, NH, protest outside a high school where President Obama speaks about the need for health care reform.

Anyone with a pulse and an IQ exceeding room temperature can likely agree that our nation’s health care system is seriously flawed.

But that’s generally where the agreement stops.

That’s why I was impressed when Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant posed a series of observations about Maine’s own raging health care debate on his Facebook page.

Casavant is also a member of the Maine House of Representatives, and his comments were based on his observations during a legislative hearing about how best to address rising health care costs.

“Clearly, resentment [of] the Obama plan drives a lot of these bills,” Casavant noted, referring to the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009.

“For some, the costs of treatment and medicine exceed their ability to pay,” he said. “So the moral question is: What should a society do in such situations? What should government do? Do we act, or do we allow the laws of Darwin to supersede our compassion, integrity and our humanity? The system is broken. . .”

I applaud Casavant for raising the topic, but submit that our health care system is NOT broken, it is fixed . . . meaning it is rigged.

Our current system is either outdated and ineffective, at best ; or it is favorably geared toward an ever shrinking pool of those who can afford to keep up with skyrocketing costs.

Are you with me, so far? Good; because this is where the debate gets tricky.

Before we proceed any further, we must agree to at least one basic fact, regardless of our individual political/cultural/socio-economic viewpoints.

Health “care” and health “insurance” are completely different topics that are too often linked at the hip.

Let’s start with health insurance.

If you drive a vehicle in Maine, you are required by law to have a minimum-liability insurance policy. This law exists to protect drivers who are harmed by another driver’s neglect or carelessness.

Driving, as the state of Maine tells all new drivers, is a privilege, not a right.

I will take that a step further and say that health “insurance” is also not a right.

Laura and I scored tickets to see President Obama speak about the need for health care reform in 2009. Then, just as it is now, we both had reservations about the president's plan. Laura tried to ask a question, but she and many others did not get picked.

The argument about whether health care is a right remains a bit more ambiguous, but let’s remember we’re now discussing health “insurance,” not health “care.”

The discussion about rights and expectations have only been muddied by the nation’s new health care law, which mandates individuals to purchase health insurance in the private marketplace.

The so-called “individual mandate” is one of the more controversial aspects of the health care reform law signed by President Obama. That issue is scheduled to be deliberated by the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

Interestingly, critics of the individual mandate can be found from both the left and right side of the political spectrum.

Conservatives argue that the individual mandate further erodes personal liberty and crosses the sacrosanct line between personal choice and government mandates.

On the other hand, more progressive Democrats — especially those who pined for a public option or a single-payer system of healthcare reform — describe the individual mandate as nothing more than a very big gift for evil insurance companies that stand to gain millions of new customers.

But all that debate and Constitutional introspection pales in comparison to the more fiery rhetoric associated with the subject of health insurance profits.

Left-leaning groups, such as ACORN and HCAN (Health Care for America Now) say that corporate, for-profit health insurance profits are skyrocketing and have quadrupled over the past few years.

It’s a favorite talking point of progressive Democrats and very handy when whipping up grassroots mobilization to support the president, but it’s not entirely accurate — although rated as “mostly true” by PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning organization established by the Tampa Bay Times to fact check political rhetoric.

Meanwhile, the health insurance industry is crying poverty, saying their profit margins are among the lowest of any industry in the United States — ranging between two and four percent.

So, which one is right?

Unfortunately, the inconvenient truth is that both groups are a little bit right, and a lot wrong.

And that is bad news for those of us trying to navigate the turbulent waters of this complex debate.

But simply blaming “greedy” insurance companies conveniently ignores too many other factors that drive health care costs. Moreover, such rhetoric is debatable, at best; and intentionally misleading at worst,

Rick Newman, chief business correspondent for US News & World Report, makes a compelling  case about why health insurance companies make lousy villains, pointing out that profits are hardly the root of a much larger and complex problem.

“Overall, the profit margin for health insurance companies was a modest 3.4 percent over the past year, according to data provided by Morningstar. That ranks 87th out of 215 industries and slightly above the median of 2.2 percent,”  Newman reports.

Despite my right-leaning, free-market beliefs, I admit to being somewhat conflicted on this issue, and that’s probably because my household is knee-deep in our own health-insurance nightmare.

Laura does a good job of managing her illness, but there is no escaping that MS is a progressive illness that will never go away and only get worse over time.

My wife, Laura, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just three days after Christmas in 2008. Her disease is never going to go away. It is never going into remission. It takes a little piece of her each day, even when we don’t notice it.

I also have a chronic disease, one that gets a lot less sympathy than MS, cancer, epilepsy or diabetes. For more than 25 years, I bounced in and out of psychiatric hospitals all across the country, ringing up thousands of dollars in debt because I had no health insurance.

Neither of us asked for our respective illness. We both work full-time. We pay our taxes, but we are also a health insurance company’s worst nightmare…we take out a lot more than we put in to the system.

If you’re a conservative, Tea-Party Republican, you are advised now to reach for the duct tape because otherwise your head may explode when I offer up this next tidbit:

You are paying a portion of our health insurance.

Laura is a state employee and thus, we are more than lucky to have an outstanding health insurance plan that is offered to all state employees and their immediate family members.

But even if Laura lost her job, and we relied upon a more traditional (and much more expensive) private health insurance plan, you would still be paying for our health insurance.

Why? Because in our current system, healthy Americans subsidize the costs of treatment for the ill. That is the fundamental core of the individual mandate: we need more young, healthy people in the system to offset the cost of treating older and sicker Americans.

I am not a big fan of the individual mandate – beyond the Constitutional arguments, I think the system unfairly penalizes healthy people and will do little to drive down the costs of health care.

There is a lot more to cover, but I will end this installment here and borrow Casavant’s closing observation from his Facebook post: Stalemate [on this issue] is unacceptable.

Next installment: Health Care: Is it a right?