The Right's Parallel Universe
To understand how the United States got itself into its current fix, it’s helpful to understand that the American Right and its powerful media apparatus have created a kind of parallel universe that has its own internal logic that sort of makes sense even if the “reality” isn’t exactly real.
So, on the Iraq War, everything is going pretty well except, as Fox News reminds its viewers, the “liberal media” keeps hiding all the positive developments from the American people. Plus, the only way to explain hostility toward George W. Bush is to postulate that his critics are consumed by irrational hatreds. The Right’s reality-divergent narrative exists on domestic policy, too.
For instance, Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and a medical doctor, explained in an April 23 speech at the Tulsa Press Club why a single-payer health insurance system like Canada’s is a sure failure and why the U.S. system of private insurance, often paid by employers, works so much better.
Coburn noted that the auto industry and many other old-line U.S. companies want a national health insurance program to get medical costs off the backs of employers and help them compete with foreign rivals that don’t pay for employee health insurance. But the senator offered anecdotes why that wouldn’t be a good idea.
“I talked to the head of General Mills,” the giant food manufacturer, Coburn said. “They have lots of employees in Canada. … I said what do you do when one of your Canadian employees gets really sick? They said they bring them to America because the Canadian system isn’t working well for acutely ill people.”
Commenting on the British medical system, the senator said, “When you look at England, the average length of time from the diagnosis of cancer to the onset of chemotherapy in England now is eight months. How many of you would be satisfied with that?”
However, like much of Fox’s happy talk about Iraq, Coburn’s scary comments about the health programs in Canada and the United Kingdom don’t square with the facts.
General Mills denies it has a program to send Canadians to the United States for treatment of serious illnesses and the U.K. cancer treatment program operates well within acceptable medical standards.
“It is true that, in certain circumstances, a General Mills employee in Canada could visit a doctor in the U.S.,” General Mills spokesman Tom Forsythe told me. “It would likely involve a U.S.-based employee on assignment in Canada. It does not happen often, and it could not be described as routine.
“However, there could be and have been cases where routine surgery, for example, (hernia, knee arthroscopy, some scans) could be done more quickly in the U.S., and an employee may visit a doctor in the U.S. for that procedure. I do not know the number, but it would be small.”
David Jensen of the government-run Health Canada said the health care budget for fiscal year 2005-06 was $37.9 billion, of which only $55.6 million was paid to U.S. doctors and healthcare facilities. That included care or treatment for Canadians vacationing in the U.S., students, and persons assigned to the U.S. by Canadian companies.
In short, there was no stream of Canadians surging into the United States for medical treatment as suggested by the senator from Oklahoma.
When I sought comment from the Kings Fund, the health care oversight organization for the United Kingdom, I was directed to a 2006 study on cancer treatment.
According to the study, “Patients who visit their GP with symptoms that suggest cancer must be given urgent referral to secondary care under the two-week target established by the Cancer Plan. In June 2006, 98.9 percent of people with suspected cancer were seen by a specialist within the target time.”
The report continued, “The plan also set a target of a maximum one-month wait from diagnosis to first treatment for all cancers, which was meant to be achieved by the end of 2005. Some 99 percent of patients diagnosed with cancer start treatment within 31 days.”
Kings Fund senior associate Tony Harrison said Coburn’s information was “not correct, assuming that chemotherapy is the first line of treatment, which of course it may not be.” In reference to the 2006 study, Harrison said, “You will see that targets that have been set for referral to start of treatment are now largely met.”
As for Coburn’s claim about an eight-month wait for chemotherapy, Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy director of the American Cancer Society, said the point could be misleading since any treatment plan depends on a patient’s condition when the cancer is discovered.
“We do not have a single standard of care,” Lichtenfeld said. “We really don’t have good studies from diagnosis to cure.”
In other words, Coburn’s assertion about an eight-month window has no real point of reference in treatment plans since other strategies might be employed besides chemotherapy.
Still, Coburn’s horror stories about medical care in Canada and the U.K. have been part of the Republican mantra in the ongoing fight to prevent a universal health care system from being established in the United States.
The Oklahoma senator has become notorious for making extreme statements that are later revealed as bizarre urban myths.
During his 2004 race for the Senate, for instance, Coburn was taped saying a campaign worker from Coalgate, Oklahoma, told him “lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they’ll only let one girl go to the bathroom.”
The Coalgate superintendent of schools expressed outrage at the ludicrous claim, which was met with ridicule by many other Oklahomans. Nevertheless, Coburn was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Coburn also has argued that condoms promote sexually transmitted disease, that abstinence education prevents teenagers from having sex, and that silicone breast implants are good for women’s health. All these positions have been challenged by government studies and expert medical opinion.
Coburn, as a new member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005, opined while pondering a bill restricting class-action suits, "You know I immediately thought about silicone breast implants and the legal wrangling and the class-action suits off that.
"And I thought I would just share with you what science says today about silicone breast implants. If you have them, you're healthier than if you don't. That is what the ultimate science shows. . . . In fact, there's no science that shows that silicone breast implants are detrimental and, in fact, they make you healthier."
At the time, Coburn made that statement silicone breast implants had been banned in the United States for more than a decade because of cases of implant leakage and other health complaints from women.
In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration did approve the implants return to the U.S. market, although a subsequent European study and many doctors have continued to raise questions about possible protein buildup around the implants and other safety issues.
Other medical experts, including the scientists cited by the FDA, argue that the preponderance of studies fail to show that silicone implants are detrimental to a woman’s health, but they don’t claim the implants make women healthier.
Richard L. Fricker is a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based freelance reporter/writer and two-time winner of the American Business Press Editors Award for Investigative Journalism. He writes regularly for the Swiss newsweekly Sonntags Blick and Consortiumnews.com. Fricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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