You have to dig pretty deep to find inspirational stories in the news these days. One I’m following closely is taking place right here in our backyard — a tale drenched in both heartache and humanity. In the Pennsbury School District in lower Bucks County, young adult grads — most in their 20s — are succumbing to the epidemic of opioid drug addiction at a rate that boggles the mind. In some weeks, community members say, as many as two or three Pennsbury alums have died from overdoses.
In June, the parents of one of the recent casualties — a 22-year-old who’d struggled with drug addiction after graduating from Pennsbury High School in 2013 — showed up at a school board meeting and begged the district to do something, anything. In this cynical age, one might have expected board members to shrug and call the next agenda item — but that’s not what happened. Instead, the district launched a task force that, in a remarkably short time for anyone who’s seen typical school bureaucracies in action, created a large-scale drug intervention program. When board members approved the plan Tuesday night, there were tears and hugs.
That’s how we want society to respond to a crisis — especially when the public’s health is at risk. To see a neighbor in need and ask how we can help. All of which makes you wonder what the hell is going on right now in Washington, where Republican lawmakers, egged on by President Trump, won’t give up on a final repeal-Obamacare push with all of the brain-dead unstoppable forward momentum of the Zombie Apocalypse. The bill — slated for a Senate vote next week — is a measure that nobody understands, nobody has vetted or debated in the open, nobody is demonstrating for, and nobody outside of Capitol Hill seems even to support. It would take health coverage away from 32 million citizens in less than a decade while making medical care unaffordable for kids with cancer and others with preexisting conditions.
Speaking of the opioid crisis, this latest monstrosity — called the Graham-Cassidy bill — would even take away $45 billion to tackle drug addiction that was in the last terrible GOP health-care bill from this summer — for no seeming reason except that they can. (No money? That would be odd, as senators just passed a generous $700 billion defense bill that includes billions for killing devices that even the hawkish Trump did not ask for.) This is like watching lawmakers trying to reinterpret Johnny Cash: I uninsured a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
The stated motive of its sponsors — Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana — is to return power and flexibility to the states. But the states — even those run by Republican governors like Trump ally Chris Christie in New Jersey — do not want this. Neither do doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, or anyone else who knows one whit about how health care in America actually works. One particularly harsh critic urged defeat of the Senate bill because it “reduces funding for many states significantly and would increase uncertainty in the marketplace, making coverage more expensive and jeopardizing Americans’ choice of health plans.” What pot-brownie-addled BernieBro said that? The association of Blue Cross Blue Shield insurers, that’s who.
But surely the bill’s supporters can explain in clear and persuadable terms what the Graham-Cassidy bill actually does, and whom it helps, right? Actually, no. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, pressed by a reporter from Vox to explain what’s good about the bill, responded with a bizarre analogy about the movie Thelma and Louise, adding that “we have to get out of the car, and you have to have a car to get into, and this is the only car there is.” That actually made more sense than most of the eight other senators that Vox spoke with, although Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley admitted that part of the motive is pure politics, that this is “the last attempt to do what we promised in the election” — which is repeal Obamacare.
But why now — with increasing public support for Obamacare (now that Barack Obama himself is gone, tellingly) — and why with this bill, which will hurt so many and benefit so few?
The answers may be uglier than we even care to admit. For Trump and his hard-core base of supporters, repealing Obamacare and replacing it with anything, with zero regard for what that replacement actually does or doesn’t do, would be the pinnacle of the broader effort to eradicate anything they perceive as tainted by the hands of America’s first black president. That includes the Paris climate accord, transgender troops, the DACA program for “Dreamers,” diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, and so on and so forth — but the idea of something taking root in American life called “Obamacare” is too much to bear. (If only they’d called it RobertELeeCare — the far right would be out there with their tiki torches marching to preserve it!)
This is the theory that writer Ta-Nehisi Coates put forth this month — that Trump’s “whiteness” in response to Obama’s blackness, and getting rid of any Obama accomplishments like “[N-word] health care,” is the very life force of his presidency. That’s a harsh premise — it infuriates a lot of people — but it’s hard to watch the current insanity on Capitol Hill and not see a movement driven by such dark, irrational impulses.
Except there is one other thing driving Republican lawmakers: money. Or, perhaps more accurately, blackmail. The billionaire oligarchs who’ve fueled the GOP restoration in Washington — specifically, the oil-drenched Koch brothers — have told their political handmaidens they will block access to an astronomical $400 million needed to retain power in 2018 unless Congress kills Obamacare and delivers a huge corporate tax cut. One key donor at a recent major confab of the Koch donor network told Republican legislators that “his ‘Dallas piggy bank’ was now closed” until the Affordable Care Act is killed for good. “Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed,” said Texas donor Doug Deason, according to the Guardian. “Get it done and we’ll open it back up.”
This is an American nightmare. This is our billionaire kleptocracy and its bought-and-paid-for Congress stirring up the toxic passions of the middle class to keep their jobs — with little or no regard to which pediatric cancer patient gets trampled in the stampede. The next week is going to be critical for the future not just of health care but of the greater American Experiment. In just the last few days, we’ve watched Trump’s dictatorial tendencies get increasingly “normalized,” in ways both big (going to the United Nations and threatening the annihilation of a U.S. adversary) and small (endorsing violence against women with a ridiculous retweet).
That’s frightening, but the disastrous Graham-Cassidy bill would be the most hurtful and authoritarian act of Trump’s eight twisted months in office, bringing real pain, even death, to thousands and spreading anxiety among millions of working-class Americans. And yet this may happen, because the Republican elites who get paid handsomely to do this for a living are convinced they can wear you down by pushing their Obamacare repeal scheme again and again and again, knowing that the people who killed their first two efforts with their phone calls and their rallies are regular folks who struggle to make ends meet and are growing increasingly exhausted.
On Friday afternoon, Arizona Sen. John McCain may have delivered a death blow to Graham-Cassidy by coming out against it. Or not, since these GOP health-care schemes seem to have more lives than a Transylvanian count. So keep calling your senator at 202-224-3121. Let them all know that if they destroy health care in this country, we will be replacing them next year with normal, decent Americans like the Pennsbury school board. The kind of people who actually take “love thy neighbor” seriously.