“the healthcare debate is not a game. the government shutdown is a death threat. my adventures in socialized medicine.”

October 2, 2013

It’s easy to talk about Healthcare in terms of numbers and statistics. Those aren’t people. They’re just numbers. It’s easy to talk about the Government Shutdown in terms of scoring political points. Who is polling well? Who is up for re-election? But I would not be here right now if it weren’t for publicly funded healthcare. This isn’t a political game. The fight going on in Washington right now is incredibly real to me, and incredibly personal. To me, this is a literal fight for survival, and if you feel so strongly that expanding Medicaid in America is so bad for the country that those who need it should die for the greater good, I want you to say that to me in those terms. Don’t quote policy wonks and pundits. Tell me that you feel that I need to die so America can thrive. At least then I’ll respect you for your honesty.

By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor

March 18th, 2011 changed everything for me. I had been in Boston rehearsing a new play I’d been commissioned to score, but had come up to New York for the weekend to perform the first show with my new band. We didn’t even have a name yet. We sat in Chelsea’s empty living room with improvised music stands and improvised percussion instruments batting around increasingly absurd band names. The best of which was “Nathan Leigh versus Florence and the Machine.” We passed around cheap wine and covered Warren G. It was a good night.

Then rehearsing the final song for the night, the wind went out of my sails. I’d never thought about my lungs as two separate entities. Suddenly and with no prompting I had one that worked and one that didn’t. The pain was excruciating and I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. Ike was convinced I was having a panic attack. “Have some water. Sit down. You’ll be fine.” I did that for half an hour. I wasn’t fine. It wasn’t a panic attack.

My first instinct when I realized I needed to go to the hospital was to panic about the cost. I’m from the great Socialist Republic of Massachusetts and have my sweet sweet RomneyCare. But I’d never used it out of state. I started plotting. Can I make it back to Boston like this? I probably shouldn’t drive. How do I get my car back? Maybe I should just go the ER here, just to be sure? How much is an ER visit? Like $200 right? Can I afford that? No. But. I could figure something out. Nah. I can wait. I’ll be fine. I’ll take a bus back to Boston and deal with it there. I’ll be fine. I wasn’t fine.

The nice thing about a collapsed lung is that you don’t die from the collapse itself. As I understand it, you die from your heart falling into the space where the lung should be and then when the lung heals itself and gradually re-inflates it crushes your heart. Organs are fucked up. Frantic Googling. “What does a collapsed lung feel like?” “How long can you survive with a collapsed lung?” Then a little bit of sense: “Does Neighborhood Health cover out of state ER visits.” The answer: Yes. So I went to the ER.

I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have publicly funded health care. The fear of a lifetime of debt nearly kept me home, giving my heart the opportunity to make a move on the newly vacated lung space. (it turns out being a freelance composer and writer isn’t as lucrative as sitcoms would have you believe) In a very real way, I am alive right now because of Mitt Romney. That’s weird to think about.

When I voted for Obama in the 2008 primary it had nothing to do with the historicity of his race. It had nothing to do with his youth, and the fact that he had the most similar taste in music to me of any president in history. (Except Van Buren. Any idiot can tell from the facial hair that the dude was way into doom metal.) It wasn’t because he’s a talented orator and speechwriter. It was because Obama (at the time) was supporting a single payer health care system, and Hilary Clinton was supporting the Romney model.

So when the illustrious bill known officially as the Affordable Care Act, but known to humans as Obamacare came through the pipeline, there was a little sense of betrayal. In an effort to curb Republican criticism, Obama preemptively compromised and proposed a bill that was modeled on Romney’s plan, which was modeled on the Heritage Foundation’s alternative to Hilarycare back in the 90’s.

The Romney/Heritage model isn’t terrible. Obviously, it saved my life. I owe it a little. It is literally better than nothing, which is what we’ve always had. But it’s far from perfect. It allows the health insurance industry to continue to rake in profits while denying care to those who need it. As a private/public partnership, it maintains the profit motive of private enterprise without taking full advantage of the bargaining power of a public institution. It’s a compromise. It’s not sustainable in the long term. But it’s better than nothing.

The Republican Party would prefer nothing. They would prefer nothing over a plan they themselves created in the 90s, and enacted in Massachusetts in the 2000s. Because it’s Obama’s plan. And that would be a victory for him. Though it hasn’t been mentioned explicitly in a long time, Southern Strategy is still in effect. By attempting to appeal simultaneously to theocrats, libertarians, and racists, Nixon forged an unholy union that still drives the Republican Party. The theocrats and racists use code words now like “states rights” and “family values” but they slip up often enough to make their intent clear.

The libertarians hate Obamacare because it is not a pure market based health care system. Though it maintains the market based insurance industry, they feel it will inevitably lead to the collapse of the industry and the establishment of single payer (we should be so lucky!). The racists reflexively hate everything Obama does even if it was a Republican idea to begin with. They use code words like “un-American” because in their mind America is a place run by white dudes, and any leadership by a non white dude is not their America. Oddly enough, a decent chunk of the theocrats are actually pro Obamacare because Jesus was a fan of helping the poor and the sick. Go figure.

So now we have a Federal Government made up of three dysfunctional branches of government. We have an Executive Branch so obsessed with being viewed as a Uniter that he will accept any compromise, no matter how unfavorable, just to be able to say he compromised. We have a Legislative Branch made up of two Centrist, Pro-Business, Pro-War, Pro-Surveillance State parties, one which leans slightly right and is made up of a coalition of Theocrats who believe their actions are Divinely inspired, Libertarians who believe that Government’s only job should be to dismantle itself, and Racists, who are dicks. The other leans slightly left, but is so cautious about any social or economic progress, it would be described as Conservative by classical definitions. And a Judicial Branch, that is probably the most functional branch, despite having one member who has only spoken in the chamber twice in twenty years, is perpetually dogged by complaints of sexual harassment, and is married to a woman who works closely with Koch Industry funded political foundations. And another Judge who literally believes that racism in America is over and we’re all cool now, and the real problem now is the omnipresent specter of “Reverse Racism.” (cue eerie organ music.) That is not a functioning government. Is anyone surprised it shut down?

We’re at a point in history where it seems we forgot to ask a very important question about our government as a society: “Why?” Why do we have a government at all? What do we want it to do? Most of us recognize that we need one. But is it out of habit? Or is it intrinsically necessary? If so, what is it’s structure? Do we maintain our top-down hierarchical model? Our government was formed as a descendent of and in response to England’s Constitutional Monarchy. It envisions a government made up of the wisest and noblest minds of a generation making great decisions for their constituents. Or do we take a bottom-up hierarchical model? Where our representatives are the lowest people in the chain of command, empowered to do nothing other than enact the will of the majority of their constituents. Or do we take a non-hierarchical model and abandon representation in favor of Direct Democracy? While in an ideal world, the last one would be my preference, I’ve been going to meetings for Occupy Wall Street and it’s offshoots a few times a week for 2 years now, nearly to the day. Non-hierarchical consensus based decision making processes aren’t ready for mainstream consumption yet. Yet. They will be. But maybe not in my lifetime.

So then if we don’t want a King and an aristocracy, even a temporarily elected one, and Anarchy requires too much trust and civic involvement to be widespread yet, our only option should be to flip the pyramid. Our government’s job should be to administer the services and resources desired by the communities that make it up. Not to “do what’s best for the people.” But to literally ask the people “what do you want?” And then do that. And we want to stay alive. Or at least, I do.

It’s been two and a half years since my lung collapsed the first time. It’s happened a few times since. Once nearly a year to the day after the first, when some cops at an Occupy protest decided to play pinball with my body. The final major time was in bed watching the 70’s Battlestar Galactica because I’m awesome. A year ago I had surgery to remove some of the blebs on the top of my lung that were causing it to collapse. I still continue to have problems. I spent an evening two weeks ago in the ER hooked up to an IV getting X-rays and all kinds of injections, inspections, detections, and neglections. I don’t remember what it feels like to not feel a shock of pain every time I inhale. I’m still grateful every day that Mitt fucking Romney took a stab at Universal Healthcare. It’s flawed. But if healthcare’s job is to keep people alive, it is doing that.

So when I hear our congress people debate Healthcare like it’s a game, I see a Federal Government that cares more about re-election than it does about the wellbeing of its people. I see Kings and Noblemen. I see people who are objectively terrible at the job we the people hired them to do. And I think it’s past time that remind them who they work for.

There aren’t a lot of options to remove a sitting congress person. Only 18 states have recall provisions. But if you live in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota. Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, or Wisconsin, I suggest you start the process. Go here for more in depth info: http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/recall-of-state-officials.aspx

As for the rest of us? The way I see it, there are 2 things we can (and should) do. First, a march on Washington to demand an end to austerity measures, and to make it known that we believe social services are the very purpose of government. And if one march isn’t enough (it won’t be), we do it again and again and again until they realize we’re not fucking around. The second is to demand a constitutional amendment to allow citizens to recall their representatives. To make the shape of the hierarchy explicit. To guarantee that no men-who-would-be-King are allowed to play out their Louis XIV fantasies while their employers are literally dying from preventable and treatable illnesses.

I’m committed to this struggle. This is a literal fight for survival for me. A few of us at Afropunk are beginning to plan a march and rally against Austerity. If you are interested in getting involved, please drop me a line at nathan [at] afropunk [dot] com. And if you have been the beneficiary of publicly funded healthcare, please share your story too. This is not a game, and we need people to see that.