Last night was a special moment for me: I was one of those 164 people representing the “face of America” that was in the East Room of the White House as Charlie Gibson and Dianne Sawyer from ABC News interviewed the President as he answered questions about health care reform.
My bottom line conclusion? This guy knows his stuff.
You may have already seen the telecast or snippets on the morning shows (if you can get past the lead story about the Governor from South Carolina). If so, there isn’t much I can add to what you have already heard. But what I can say is that—aside from the glamour and imposing “presence” of the room itself—I was overwhelmingly impressed with the President’s grasp of the issues and his ability to respond effectively if not always completely to the questions he was asked.
I have been through this before. I have been “in the room” when political figures address audiences and promote their policies. And, like you, I watch television from time to time, see the debates, listen to the Sunday morning talk shows, and draw conclusions as to whether I agree or disagree or whether I like or don’t like (or don’t really care) about the person who is the target of an interviewer’s probes.
I have over the years become somewhat blasé and perhaps a bit cynical about “the show”. The answers are frequently scripted and perfunctory, repeating the same sound bites again and again. They are—in a word—predictable.
One could make the argument that the President’s responses last night had some of that same predictability. But although the interviewers and the questioners had their scripts in hand (it appeared that the people who appeared on camera had been selected after having submitted the questions in advance, since the hosts knew who they were looking for and those people were positioned in certain accessible parts of the room), I don’t believe the President knew what was coming.
That’s why I believe his presentation was in fact what I would call a “tour d’ force” on health care reform. You may not agree with him (I won’t tell you here which parts I thought were right on target and which ones gave me pause), but you can’t fault him for not knowing his topic.
This man sat there for 90 minutes and took on every question he was asked. And although some of us in discussions after the show recognized where he did a little bobbing and weaving, almost to a person we thought he was masterful in his ability to articulate his position. And those comments came from some of the most knowledgeable Washington health care “players” that I know.
That, my friends, is what I would call “high praise.”
It is clear that this President means what he says about advancing health care reform. Looking at him up close and personal—and I was close if not personal—I can tell you he didn’t flinch, didn’t recoil, and didn’t react adversely to any question (although I did think his answer about basing health care policy decisions on a person’s “spirit” to live put him in a tough spot).
So, if I had the opportunity, what questions would I have asked?
First and foremost, I would have thanked him on behalf of the Society and the millions of people and their families who are confronting cancer today for making the issue of accessible, affordable, quality health care a priority of this administration, this Congress and this nation.
I would have asked how his proposal would have helped the Americans who spend themselves into poverty treating cancer and other chronic diseases.
Our advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network recently completed a survey that showed 20% of American families spend most or all of their life savings when faced with paying for cancer treatment, and one out of seven families accumulate thousands of dollars of uncompensated debts as a result of a cancer diagnosis.
The diagnosis of cancer not infrequently—and unfortunately—brings with it huge personal financial burdens and all too often outright bankruptcy. We can’t have people going through their life savings while fighting for their lives. It’s almost like being in a fight with one hand tied behind your back, although in the case of cancer the consequences are much more serious.
I would have asked how we can make certain that everyone has access to preventive services, so we can find cancer early when it is most treatable and offers the best prognosis. Too many people have to put off or never get recommended screenings for cancer because they simply can’t afford them or don’t have health insurance that covers them.
My next question would have been about the portability of insurance coverage, and how to maintain affordable, effective health insurance even if you are too sick to work.
The platitudes about COBRA and how it protects us makes me want to…. (fill in the blank, because I can’t write the words I would like to say here). I have been out of work in the past, and even 10 years ago the cost of maintaining health insurance for my family was over $12,000. Without an income and not much savings, that was a very, very large number. A member of my family recently graduated from college, and the cost to insure her was enormous. She is now among those 46 or 47 million uninsured they talked about last night.
Being sick with cancer and losing your job is bad enough. Paying through the nose for health insurance after you lose your job makes it worse. Talking dispassionately about how people can maintain their coverage in those circumstances as though this was a simple mechanism at a reasonable cost just doesn’t cut it with me. I guess you could say that this particular issue is personal.
The final question would have been what protections will be put into place to be certain that people have health insurance that is adequate to meet their needs if they have to be treated for cancer.
Too many folks find out too late that their health insurance has a variety of limitations and maximums that simply don’t cut it in today’s expensive treatment environment. When you have drugs that cost over $100,000 a year each, and scans that cost over $3000 each, you find out that what you thought was a lot of coverage can disappear very, very quickly. We need to provide assurance to the American people that they have adequate coverage for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, from the very first step to the very end of life. No one—and I mean no one—wants to have cancer. And no one should be left unable to afford effective, quality based, adequate treatment for their disease.
So those were the questions I would have asked the President, and you can decide for yourself whether or not he answered those questions in response to the ones he was asked last night. And if you didn’t hear the answers, maybe you can ask those same questions yourself and decide whether or not the various plans you are hearing about every day meet the tests outlined above.
Let’s finish here on a perhaps more humorous note, which is the “other comment” that I was prepared to make.
If you know me, you are aware that I look somewhat like Phil Jackson, the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers who recently won the NBA championship. Knowing that the President is a basketball fan, I was prepared to respond if he made the comment I have heard many times before, namely “Do you know you look like Phil Jackson?”
My response to the President would have been, “Sorry, Mr. President, but I’m not Phil. However, my colleagues at the American Cancer Society, our advocacy affiliate the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, and our millions of volunteers across the country would like to bring home a more important championship, which is accessible, affordable, and adequate health care reform for everyone in this country.”
That is something all of us could celebrate.
Mr. President, thanks for inviting me to your “House.”