Health Care Special Comment - 2009-10-07 Countdown with Keith Olbermann

Uploaded by SolelyByRequest on 24.06.2012

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: Good evening from New York.
Since August 23rd of this year, I have interacted daily with our American health care system
and often done so to the exclusion of virtually all other business. It's not undercover reporting.
It's not an expert study of the field.
But since that day when my father slid seemingly benignly out of his bed onto the floor of
his home, I've experienced with growing amazement and with multiplying anger the true state
of our hospitals, our doctor's offices, our insurance businesses, our pharmacies. My father's
story is a patient, and mine as a secondary participant and a primary witness has been
eye-opening and jaw-dropping, and we are among the utterly lucky ones. A fact that by itself
is terrifying and infuriating.
And thus, tonight, for all those we have met along the way, those with whom we have shared
the last two months inside the valley of the beast, and for everyone in this country who
will be here and write soon, tonight, Countdown will be devoted entirely to a "Special Comment"
on a subject of health care reform in this country.
I do not want to yell. I feel like screaming but everybody is screaming. Everybody is screaming
that this is about rights or freedom or socialism or the president or the future or the past
or political failure or political success. We have all been screaming.
I have been screaming and we have all been screaming, because we do not want to face
- we cannot face what is at the heart of all of this, what is the unspoken essence of every
moment of this debate. What about which we are truly driven to such intense, ineffable,
inchoate, emotions? Because ultimately, in screaming about health care reform - pro or
con - we are screaming about death.
This ultimately is about death. About preventing it, about fighting it, about resisting it,
about grabbing hold of everything and anything to forestall it and postpone it even though
we know that the force will overcome us all, always will, always has.
Health care is at its core about improving the odds of life in its struggle against death,
of extending that game which we will all lose, each and every one of us, onto eternity, extending
it another year or month or second. This is the primary directive of life, the essence
of our will as human beings. All perhaps it is measurable of our souls, the will to live.
And when we go to a doctor's office or a hospital or storefront clinic in a ghetto, we are expressing
this fundamental cry of humanity: I want to live. I want my child to live. I want my life
to live. I want my father to live. I want my neighbor to live. I want that stranger
I do not know and never will know to live.
This is elemental stuff, our atoms in action, our survival mode in charge. Tamper with this
and you are tampering with us. And so we yell and scream and try to put it all into political
context or expand it to some great issue of societal freedom or dress it up in something
that would be otherwise farcical like a death panel, but this issue needs no expansion and
no dressing up. The Democrats need to draw no line in the sand, and the Republicans need
to calculate no seats to be game and the blue dogs need to anticipate no campaign contributions
This issue is big enough as it is. This is already life and death.
Of all the politicians of the previous century, none fought harder to prevent an administration
that had promised to involve itself in health care from ever gaining power than in England's
Winston Churchill. He equated his opponents to party that sought to introduce the national
health to the Gestapo of the Germans that he and we had just beaten, just as those opposing
reform now have been invoke Nazis as frequently and as falsely as if they were invoking zombies.
Churchill caused himself the election because he did not realize he was overplaying an issue
that people were already damn serious about.
Irony this, because a decade earlier, Churchill had made the greatest argument ever for government
intervention in health care, only he did not realize it. He was debating in parliament
the notion that the British government could not increase expenditures on military defense
unless the voters specifically authorized it. Just as today's opponents of reform are
now claiming they speak for the voters of today, even though those voters spoke for
themselves eleven months ago.
Churchill's argument was this, quote, "I have heard it said that the government had no mandate.
Such a doctrine is wholly inadmissible. The responsibility for the public safety is absolute
and requires no mandate."
And there is the essence of what this is. What on the eternal list of priorities precedes
health? What more obvious role could government have than the defense of the life of each
We cannot stop every germ that seeks to harm us any more than we can stop every person
that seeks to harm us, but we can try, damn it. And government's essential role in that
effort, facilitate it, reduce its costs, broaden its availability, improve my health and yours
seem ultimately self-explanatory.
We want to live. What is government for if not to help us do so? Indeed, Mr. Churchill,
the responsibility for the public safety is absolute and requires no mandate, and yet,
today at this hour, somebody, somewhere in this country, is arguing against or protesting
against or yelling against health care reform because the subject is really life and death,
and they're scared and they've been scared and they've been misled by the overly simple
words of one side and misinformed by the overly complex words of the other side.
And that one person - at least that one person - who is tonight so scared that somehow sickness
and pain and death will come sooner to them because of reform they do not understand,
that one person if his or her argument is successful and reform is again squashed, that
one person arguing against health care reform will die sooner because they argued against
health care reform - just as you and I have largely failed to understand the terror, the
fear of death that underlies this debate in the minds of so many.
The leadership of the reform effort has also failed to understand it and failed to lead,
not just in practical terms but in rhetorical ones.
If you did not know what something called the "public option" was, you might instinctively
oppose it. Option - my health care is now optional? Doesn't that mean it can go away
somehow? Doesn't that mean that when I need it, it won't be there? Doesn't it mean somebody
is trying to take it away from me?
And this insurance that might go away is public? I'm giving control the government somehow?
No private, just public?
And so, in seconds, with mental reflexes as acute and natural as any mechanism of fight
or flight, something that will expand health care and reduce its costs, something that
will help fight death and pain becomes misunderstood as exactly the opposite.
You can blame the one doing the misunderstanding all you want, but the essence of communication
is reducing the chance of misunderstanding, and the term the "public option" has been
as useless and as full of holes and as self-defeating as has been the term "global warming."
It is political speak. It is legalese. It is designed not for the recipient but for
the speaker. It is the ego of the informed strutting down the street and saying, "Look
at me, I talk smart."
Just as global warming is really bad climate change, the public option is, in broad essence,
Medicare for everybody. Frame it that way, sell it that way, and suddenly, it doesn't
sound like a threat turning the seemingly solid insurance which people have now, for
better or worse, into something optional and turning anything private into everything public.
Once you said "Medicare for everybody," there would be just as much to explain. If you were
under 65, you'd paying pay for it. You wouldn't have to buy it. You wouldn't have to change
from whatever you have now. There are just as many caveats. Still, the intent of this
all would be clearer.
Much of the criticism of health care reform is coming from those who have or are about
to get Medicare, and in confusion, in fear and in the kind of indescribable realization
that we are far closer to the end than we are to the beginning, they are suddenly, mortally
afraid that health care reform will take it away from them.
"Medicare for everybody" may not be literally true, but instead of terrifying, it would
be reassuring and the explanations and the caveats would be listened to and not shouted
down as anger and fear.
Fear - remember - of death. Fear that swells up inside.
This rhetorical ship, of course, has sailed and, frankly, those leading the effort to
reform health care have been so outflanked, out-argued, out-terrorized by its opponents
that their reflexes seem shot. They are to use to Mr. Lincoln's words about General Rosecrans,
"Frozen in place like a duck hit on the head."
And yet, even from the most insurrectionary of the infamous town halls of August, there
came report after report of proponents of health care reform responding to tea-partyists
and the genuinely confused, in voices calm with genuine empathy and honest inquiry, by
asking, "What are you afraid of? What do you think we do to improve health care?"
Setting aside the professional protestors, the shameless mercenaries of this equation,
the LaRouche bags and the hired guns, the results were uniform and productive. Dialogue,
conversation, admission of fear, admission that we are indeed talking about pain and
sickness and life and death - admission that we are seeking the same things and that this
should not be left to the politicians who almost to a man reek of the corruption of
campaign contributions from the very monopolies they are supposedly trying to control.
And something else would come up - something that you'd never hear included in the debate
over reform, in the debate about insurance and bankruptcy, and even in the debate over
the remorseless, rapaciousness of companies that are forever increasing premiums and deductibles
while reducing what they give back to the person who is sick. What you never hear about
is the person who is sick.
Have you ever stayed overnight in a hospital? All data suggests that in a given year, only
about one in 10 of us do. It's not a universal experience.
Could you sleep in a hospital - with constant noise, with sharing a room with strangers
perhaps, with contemplating mortality, and more immediately, the fog of germs in the
place with staff infections and MRSA, and nursing staffs cut to the minimum, and overworked
doctors and medical record-keeping so primitive it might as well be done on blackboards?
And the bills? What about the person who is sick and the bills? How are they supposed
to get better while they are sitting there inside a giant cash register? How do you heal?
How do you kill a cancer when the meter is running so loudly you can hear it?
When a system of health care has been so refined, so perfected as to find a way to charge for
almost everything and to reimburse for almost nothing - how does the person who is sick
not worry always, always, about where he is going to get the money? And how is somebody
worrying always about where he's going get money supposed to also get better?
Yet, our neighbor in that hospital bed hoping tonight half for health and half for the money
to pay for it is still in better shape than at least 122 Americans who might be watching
this right now and who will not be with us tomorrow because they will die - because they
do not have insurance.
I will pick it up there and then move onto the question of whether if health care is
not reformed, we should force the issue by bailing out of this stylize blackmail that
is insurance.
OLBERMANN: Sometime around 1:00 in the morning on Saturday, the 22nd of August of this year,
my father struggling with knee problems, of generalized weakness, lack of appetite and
lethargy, tried to use the portable urinal he kept by his bed to limit those middle of
the night trips to the toilet. It sounds a little gross, I know. But certainly not when
the alternative is a 10- or 20-minute ordeal of struggling to the bathroom and wondering
what in the hell you're going to do if you don't make it there in time.
But that night, there was an additional problem. He was having trouble going. He tried to adjust
his position sitting on the edge of the bed and suddenly, the mattress shifted underneath
him and deposited him gently on the floor. He might have been in nothing more threatening
than a seated position there.
With his knees as bad as they are, there was almost no chance he was going to get out of
it without help. For reasons that would later become apparent, my father would pretend to
himself that wasn't true. He decided to believe that he would soon be feeling better and would
be able to get up on his own. He thinks he dozed much of the night.
As it got light out, he realized his cell phone was within grasp and he called me. Not
to say he was in trouble, he never mentioned it. But only about the move we were planning
for him to his own place closer to me, he never mentioned the precariousness of his
position. He'd now been stuck on the floor for about seven hours.
Sometime in the afternoon, between the dehydration and exhaustion, the hallucinations started.
He heard my sister and her family in the hallway outside his bedroom. He could feel the vibration
of the footsteps of his grandkids running up and down.
In a startling tribute to the imagination's ability to make hallucination like this one
completely self-contained and impervious to logic, he heard his daughter say, "Don't bother,
Grandpa. He's resting."
He thinks he smelled cooking. My sister and her kids were in fact in Upstate New York
at the time. My dad found himself increasingly angry and finally, sometime after midnight
on the morning of Sunday, August 23rd, he phoned her and demanded to know why she had
been in the house without so much as giving him the courtesy of peeking her head in to
see if he was all right.
Only after her repeated insistences that she had been and was 330 miles away and had been
all day did reality regain control. My father apologized. My sister called the neighbor.
The neighbor called the cops.
There was never an official diagnosis of just that one incident that night. But I've gone
into such excruciating detail because of what I was told that night by the doctors at the
E.R., which I joined my father and what I have been told by other health professionals
since. The hallucinations almost certainly will provoke by dehydration, and if not renal
failure per se, and certainly, a kind of temporary shutdown of the kidneys.
By the time he got there, it had been more than 24 hours since he had triggered this
cascade of problems by trying to adjust the position of his body so he could urinate.
And still he had not done so. My father's kidneys were in trouble. Considering the kidney
disease was what killed his father, this was very bad news.
We heard just yesterday about kidneys and insurance. The Waddington brothers, Travis
of New York, Michael of Santa Fe, "The New York Times" reported their dad, David, needed
a kidney transplant because of congenital renal disease. Each of the sons was ready
to donate, of course, but they were warned not even to get tested to see if they matched
for if they did, transplant or no, they would conceivably be denied insurance for the rest
of their lives because they might test positive for the same congenital renal disease that
threatened their father and thus, they would have a pre-existing condition.
And still, the Waddingtons and their dad and my dad were all luckier than at least 45,000
Americans, because as discovered in a new study conducted by Harvard University and
the Cambridge Health Alliance, that's how many of us are dying each year because we
don't have insurance.
The number is horrible. But when it's contrasted to what faced my father that night, it is
unforgivable, because as Cambridge's summary of the findings put it: deaths associated
with lack of health insurance now exceed those caused by many common killers such as kidney
My father had less to fear that night from bad kidneys than he would have if he hadn't
had insurance. And yet we let this continue. You and I, this society, our country, Democrats
and Republicans, this is the study that congressman from Florida quoted, about which the Republicans
demanded an apology when they should have been standing there shrieking, demanding that
we fix this.
Uninsured working age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately
insured counterparts. People, in short, are dying for lack of money.
Dying as surely as they did when Charles Dickens wrote about the exact same problem, a boy
who couldn't get sufficient medical care for his affliction, of the underprivileged suffering
not just privation but death as an uncomfortable mode silently and unseeingly through the streets
of London. The book was called "A Christmas Carol" and the boy Dickens imagined was called
"Tiny Tim." And it was published on the 19th of December, 1843.
It is 166 years later and the problem is not only still with us, it is getting worse. The
mortality rate among Americans under the age of 65 who are uninsured is 40 percent higher
than those with insurance. In 1993, a similar study found the difference was only 20 percent.
We are moving backwards.
We are letting people die because they do not have insurance? What's worst is that barring
meaningful health care reform now, this will only grow. The difference between the surveys
from 1993 and now suggest: this fatal insurance gap is growing by about 1 percent per year.
Your chances of dying because you don't have insurance are now 40 percent higher than those
who have it. By extrapolation, three years from now, your chances will be 43 percent
Your chances of dying because you used to smoke compared to those who never smoked,
are only 42 percent higher. You heard that right. At the current rate in 2012, you will
be more fortunate, more secure, more long lived if you used to smoke than if you don't
have insurance. It is mind-boggling and mindless.
This is the country you want? This is the country you will accept? Do those other people
in this country have meaning to you? Or are they just extras in your movies? Backgrounds
in your painting? Choruses in your solo?
Without access to insurance for all of us, and the only way we get it is with the government
supplying the gaps - just like it does in flood insurance for God's sake - that fatal
gap will just keep growing. The 45 percent higher likelihood of death for the uninsured
compared to the insured by 2014. By 2022, the figure will be 53 percent higher - 53
In the 1840s, as Dickens wrote "Christmas Carol," in a time at which we now look back
with horror, the city of Manchester in England commissioned a crude study of mortality among
its residents, a doctor, P.N. Haland (ph), categorized the sanitary conditions of the
houses in the streets of Manchester into three classes. And when he compared the death rate
in the first class houses in the first class streets to the death rate in the second class
houses in the third class streets, he found mortality in those worst locations was 53
percent higher.
If we do not reverse this trend in 14 years time, we will not be living in the America
of 2022. The shadows of the things that may be tell us that we will instead be living
in an insurance-driven version of the Dickensian England of 1843 - again.
God bless us, everyone.
Tonight's "Special Comment" continues after this.
OLBERMANN: I told my father the other night that the insurance I really want to get for
him and me is called corporate-owned life insurance, C-O-L-I, COLI, like an E. coli.
How fitting.
With or without your consent, your employer is permitted by law to take out life insurance
on you. It can, in fact, take out life insurance on everybody who works for it. Who gets the
money when you all die? Your employer does.
Dad pointed out that, theoretically, this would give them motivation to kill you. That,
of course, would be for the same reason as Michael Moore points out in his new movie,
"Capitalism: A Love Story," that you can't buy fire insurance on the house of the guy
who lives next door to you. Golly gee, that's right. Suddenly, you'd have a motive to burn
down his house and the world is already too much like that symbolically to make it a little
bit like that in reality.
No, it's really unlikely that even the most evil corporation would think of killing you
to get a payout from the COLI insurance plan. It exists for much more mundane and passive
reasons. You're going to die any way and the tax laws of this country are such that if
your company has 100,000 employees, it can take out small whole life policies on everybody,
and just let the actuarial tables do the work for it, 10,000 bucks here, 20,000 there, maybe
50,000 back here and all of it is tax-exempt.
And your employer can borrow the money to pay the premiums on secret insurance it has
on you, and the interest on that loan is tax deductible. And your employer can, in essence,
overpay the premium it has on you and your fellow drones, and the extra money in the
kitty is called "cash value." And it can be stuck into a pension benefit plan or other
product of the mad, mad world of accounting, and "cash value" is also tax-deferred. It
can be returned to your employer later as a tax-free loan. And if your employer goes
bankrupt, the "cash value" in those insurance policies is protected by tax laws by creditors.
In short, your employer can get a tax deductible loan to my insurance on you that until this
past June, they didn't mean to tell you about and the money is first tax-deferred and then
tax-free and then when you die, the payoff it gets is tax-exempt and when the company
dies, the boss still gets to keep the money anyway from the creditors even if somehow,
you, the guy on whom your boss has surreptitiously taken out an insurance policy, you happen
to be one of the creditors, tough.
And even though it's based on insurance on your health and your life, all that tax-free,
tax-exempt, tax-deferred money not only does not go to you, it also does not go to the
government. And so, if we really are ever going to do anything about federally-supported
health care as an alternative to these private insurers, there is that much less tax money
to do that with. And some of the money that isn't going to you and isn't going to the
government is going to strengthen the already monolithic insurance companies.
And just in case this isn't a sweet enough deal, the government is almost silent about
telling that employer of yours what kind of health insurance it must give you. And year
after year, the companies get smarter and more audacious about either cutting what your
health insurance covers or cutting the number of employees the health insurance covers,
or both.
And if that is still not sweet enough, there is also something called the National Association
of Insurance and Financial Advisers, and it has a political action committee, IFAPAC.
And last year, IFAPAC had $1,492,000 worth of campaign money with which to buy politicians.
And you'd be amazed how many of them you can buy with even $1,492,000.
And these are the same people who are not only influencing the health care debate, spending
more than $1 million a day to defeat reform, they are also the same people who by raising
your premiums and cutting your reimbursements, who by manipulating prices at hospitals and
doctor's offices for everything from tongue depressors to enemas, who by influencing health
care in this country more effectively and more selfishly than a dictator could ever
do, these are the people who decide what kind of health care you get, how much you pay for
it, and whether or not they would rather not see you get it.
It is your skin, literally, and it is the hands of people, insurance companies, who
can still make money by betting against your good health. There's only one comfort here
and it's cold, indeed. Profit while you can, insurers. Sickness and death wait not just
for your customer. They also wait for you and they are double parked.
The doctor who treats you and the pharmacist who makes you pay through your nose are not
your enemies in this. It proves they are as much victims as you and I are. The time has
come to realign this battle here so that it is not just us versus the entire medical and
health care establishment. It's us and the doctors and the nurses and the pharmacists
and maybe even some of the hospitals against the real enemy, the insurance companies.
The insurance companies who are right now at war against America.
That's where I'll pick it up when this Special Comment continues.
OLBERMANN: Dr. Albert Sabin was, by his own description, pretty full of himself when he
managed to temporarily stop the testing of Salk Polio Vaccine after a bad batch sickened
and killed some children early in the first tests in the 1950s. Sabin recounted this in
a TV interview in the '80s. He was weeping.
He had believed he was doing right. He had convinced himself that the fact that Salk's
vaccine, the so-called inactivated Polio vaccine, had been chosen for use instead of Sabin's
own live polio vaccine was irrelevant to his efforts.
He was weeping as he recounted this too. Ultimately, there proved nothing wrong with Salk's vaccine.
The one batch had been improperly handled and manufactured. Sabin and others delayed
all further testing for weeks.
Sabin was weeping as we remembered for that. For in 1983, Dr. Sabin had contracted a rare
disease of his own. Surgeons operated, relieved the intense pain and muscle weakness, and
then ten days later, it came back, ten times worse, enough for him to be yelling and crying
virtually all the time. The pain, he said, made me want to die.
And Dr. Albert Sabin suddenly remembered that the stopping of the Salk vaccine experiments
had led to death, death of children. More immediately, though, it had led to pain, physical
and emotional for the children and the parents. And he said it had not occurred to him then
that the first thing doctors must do, the first thing the health care system must do
is stop pain.
He vowed to spend the rest of his life relieving pain. His own searing agony and paralysis
gradually, inexplicably faded.
They moved my father this afternoon. I don't mean they moved him to another hospital. They
moved him in his bed into a different position. It was agony for him. Agony enough that he
could barely see us. Agony enough they had to give him all of the pain killer he could
handle and he couldn't talk anymore.
Another moment when somebody like me wonders about what it would be like if he was going
through that I was watching worrying about whether we could afford the pain killers,
or the doctors, or that hospital, or any treatment at all.
And what kind of society we live in where we millions of us face questions like that,
and politicians goodly talk about incremental improvements, while they slowly reshape the
new laws that are supposed to reduce the number of us faced with pain untreated do to money
into laws that take more money out of our pockets and give it the corporations who are
profiting off health care, without contributing one second to the relief of pain or the curing
of disease.
The pimps of the equation taking their 20 percent off the top, the health insurance
How would our politicians react if there were millions of Americans in pain getting insufficient
care to relieve that pain because of interference from insurance corporations and those millions
just had been injured in a natural disaster or an attack on this country? How fast would
the politicians rush their portable podiums to the driveways outside the emergency rooms?
How quickly would the money come?
You know the answer. And you know what the answer has been about rushing to help those
millions of Americans in pain tonight. Attacked not by another country or a terrorist or even
a flood, but attacked merely by life. Half of the politicians are dedicated to protecting
the corporations against having to help our relatives and our neighbors in pain. The other
half are calculating how far they can anger our insurance overlords before our insurance
overlords stop contributing to their campaigns.
Might all their CEOs, might all the wavering political frauds get ten minutes of Dr. Sabin's
pain or my father's.
That's another part of the story you just haven't seen, the doctors. For all of the
jokes over all of the years, these guys really are on our side in this, especially the ones
in the hospitals, especially the ones without whose skills you would heal up just as fast
in a bowling alley as in the best of the medical centers.
The man who took out my appendix two years ago, a messy, dangerous job that took more
than two hours, from which I recovered fast enough that I only missed four days of work,
and who left three little scars, one of which I can't find anymore. I wrote all the checks.
I know how much he got out of the whole price, about 10 percent.
A very good friend of mine is a doctor in California. He wrote me about all of this
the other day. You can see, he said, why doctors who want to make a living or cover increasing
costs, labor, overhead, et cetera, have only have one choice: see more patients, spend
less time, answer fewer calls, because there is no other way to increase revenue.
Plus, he wrote, if you order tests, patients think they're getting better care, and doctors
thinking that testing saves them time in thinking or talking with people. You have chest pain?
Instead of asking you questions, why don't we go ahead and do this stress test that I
get paid much more than some little office visit to do, and make sure it's not your heart.
And so, like us, the doctors are slaves to insurance. That's not even talking about malpractice.
We have to help them on that. Maybe we do need to cap damages. We do it, though, maybe
where everybody benefits. You set up the cap wherever it works out to be now and then you
lower it each year by exactly how much the entire cost of a patient's health care is
lowered in this country. Incentivize the doctors to help make health care available to everybody.
We patients and the doctors have to be on the same side again, to stop pain, to heal
disease, and not to be customers and salesman. And to help the thinking long-term too.
People do want to discuss their end of life preferences, prospectively, my friend the
doc says. And doctors should be paid to have these discussions.
And then he wrote something that hadn't occurred to me. "We spend a lot of money on doing things
that people would not have wanted us to do to them."
That hit home. My mother died in the spring. Bless her. She lived without symptoms until
nearly two weeks before she went, and we had all talked about what to do and when to do
it and what not to do. And so when they said there's breast cancer and there's five lesions
in her brain and there's nothing we can do that will wake her, but we can do a lot to
lessen her pain, or we can do things that might extend her life, but also won't cure
and also won't wake her, but might be hurting her - we can't tell - it took five seconds
to decide.
And then I thought of all the people who never had that discussion with their mother or father,
who don't know that those are the choices they might face, and how it might help to
have a doctor who says, blandly, here it all is. You say, doc, thanks. I have decided I
still want you to keep me alive forever, even if I'm suffering and comatose. He says, got
Only, now he can send you a bill and you can have insurance pay you back for it. So your
mother and you will know, when the time comes, exactly what each choice would bring. And
some buffoon decided to call that a death panel.
On the list of preventable deaths, Diabetes, stroke, ulcers, appendix, pneumonia, we're
19th in the world. Canada is 6th. England, 16th. We're 19th. Portugal is 18th. You're
better off in Portugal.
Death panels? We have them now. They're called Wellpoint and Cigna and United Health Care
and all of the rest.
Ask not for whom the insurance companies cash register bell tolls. It tolls for thee.
What you and I might yet be able to do about all
of this when my Special Comment continues.
OLBERMANN: I do not know who the two women were, yet they are indelibly burned into my
memory now. They stood outside on a crisp New York morning last week, middle aged, short,
looking more than a little wary. They were wearing lab coats, and they were leaning against
what those coats told me was their place of employment, the Mortimer B. Zuckerman (ph)
Research Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
The women in the cancer researcher lab coats were smoking cigarettes. I've seen a lot of
startling things in my more than 40 days and 40 nights alongside my ailing father inside
this nation's fractured health care system, but not seemed to me to better symbolize the
futility, the ram your head against the wall futility of this gigantic medical entity that
we created, that seems to not only broken free from human control, but which has, to
some great measure, enslaved us.
Twenty three stories tall, built partly with a 100 million dollar gift from the publisher
of the "New York Daily News" and "US News Magazine" and two of the cancer researchers
are standing in front smoking.
That isn't the only picture that haunts my dreams. A man walking out of another hospital,
casual, purposeful, in control. The red stitches on the left side of his shaved head outlining
a space as big as a large potato and at least an inch higher than the rest of his skull.
I don't if he was getting better or he was getting worse. I don't know if he had just
gotten good news or bad. I don't know if tonight he's healthy or he's dead.
Months ago, I got in line at a drug store here. A woman ahead of me, obviously a familiar
figure to the young pharmacist behind the country, trying, with mixed success, to take
in the gentle explanation. You have maxed out your prescriptions on that insurance,
the professional said slowly. I can't give it to you.
The customer shook her head in resignation. It was like the Medieval Courts of Chancery
(ph), where if you were poor, you could take your lawsuit against the rich or the government
and hope that when they hear the handful of cases to be heard that year, they picked somehow
If they didn't, you could try again next year or, in some cases, every year for 20 next
The woman who needed the prescription spoke even more slowly than the pharmacist just
had. She almost had no hope in her voice. Try the Cigna please.
Another drug store late at night and the pharmacist there was a friend of mine. "You have to do
something about this," he said loudly as he handed me my refill. He reached for somebody
else's prescription. "You see this? Anti-fungal cream. I just filled this. You know what this
cost wholesale? Four dollars. You know what I sell it for? Two hundred sixty three dollars.
I sell it for less and I get fired, and maybe we lose our license."
And then this. Last Saturday, I leave my father 24 hours after serious surgery that probably
saved his life, serious enough that he was still under sedation, and it would be another
24 hours before he knew where he was or who I was. Yet I knew he was OK, because I had
gotten him the best care in the world. Literally, his surgeon is considered among the top five
guys in his field alive today. Even I can tell you absolutely nailed the operation.
And I know that after my father was to wake up, when post-operative fluids would get into
his lung and he had trouble breathing and he had to inhale after every word, they would
give him a drug called Lasigs (ph) that would start to drain the fluids. And within five
minutes, he would be breathing easier. And within 15, it would be like nothing was ever
wrong, and that this was just one of 20 drugs they can use on him, not just to make him
better long-term, but, just as importantly, and twice as imperatively, to stop his pain
I marveled that we had come so far that you can barely take care of your life like he
would admit he hasn't for 80 years. You can even be as dumb as those two women outside
of the cancer research center smoking away. And there's still a kaleidoscope of drugs
and therapies and nurses and diagnosticians and psychiatrists and X-Ray techs and surgeons,
and all of them are capable of undoing the pain and curing the sickness and forestalling
As I walked down the hallway from my dad's room, I allowed myself a brief moment of selfishness.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I'm happy that I can spend whatever it takes to help my dad
get better, to keep him around.
But maybe I can atone for that selfishness by making this case tonight to you, to whoever
sees this, that we have to make these wonders of life and health and peace of mind and control
of pain available to everybody.
And this is boiling in my brain that day. I take the shortcut out to the street through
the emergency room. And that's when I hear my name called. It's a man roughly my age
and he looks worried to death and really familiar.
I haven't seen him in 32 years. He was the nephew of the two brothers from Brooklyn who
used to run the baseball card shows when we were both kids. His uncles were businessmen.
But he, like me, we were the kids collecting mostly for the fun of it. It's amazing to
see him again, joyous almost, just for the sake of the continuity, that the accident
of us running into each other provides to us both.
And he asks what I'm doing there. I tell him. He smiles, because my father used to go to
those card shows with me. Mike remembers him.
Then I ask Mike why he's there. "My daughter is in ICU," he says.
Three weeks now. The worried look returns to his face. "Lyme disease." It's one thing
they knocked that down and then it's another. There's a brief pause. "Tomorrow I will have
to sell my farm. Did you know I had a farm?" I don't have to ask him why.
He then goes the next step. "You want to buy my card collection? I have got some great
We must reform a system that lets my father get better care than yours does or better
care than Mike's daughter does because of the accident of life that I make more money
than he does or my checkbook could hold out longer than his does or yours does, as the
bills come endlessly, like some evil version of the enchanted water buckets from "Fantasia."
The resources exist for your father and mine to get the same treatment, to have the same
chance, and to both not have to lie there worried about whether or not they can afford
to live.
Afford to live. Are we at that point? Are we so heartless that we let the rich live
and the poor die and everybody in between become racked with fear, fear not of disease
but of deductibles?
Right now - right now, someone's father is dying because they don't have that dollar
to spend. And the means by which the playing field is leveled, and the costs that are just
as inflated to me as they are to you are reduced, and the money that I then don't have to spend
anymore on saving my father can go instead to saving your father, that's called health
care reform.
Death is the issue. How can we not be united against death? I want my government helping
my father to fight death. I want my government to spend taxpayer money to help my father
fight to live. I want my government to spend taxpayer money to help your father fight to
I want it to spend my money first on fighting death. Not on war. Not on banks. Not on high-speed
rail. Spend our money. Spend my money first on the chance to live.
And we must be unanimous in this, not to achieve some political triumph for one side against
the other, but to save the man or the woman or the child who will be dead by morning in
this country, in this century, on our watch, because we're not spending that money tonight.
I will not settle for a compromise bill. I will extend my hand to those who are scared
of the inevitability of death, but who have been told they are scared of reform, those
who been exploited by the others, paid or forced to defend the status quo.
We must recognize the enemy here. It's an enemy capable of perverting reform meant for
you and me into its own ATM that mandates only that more of us become the slaves to
the insurance company, the monied interests that have bled their customers white, and
used their customers money to buy the system, to buy the politicians, to buy the press.
It cannot now even be checked by the government. Ordinarily the solution would be obvious.
We would have to do it for the government. We would have to bring insurance companies
to their knees, to organize, to pick a date to say enough, to, at a given hour, on a given
day, stop paying the premiums: an insurance strike.
But the insurance company's strangle hold on us is so complete right now that lives
would be risked. Lives would be lost by the very act of protest. What parent could risk
the cancellation of their child's insurance? What adult could risk giving his insurer the
chance to claim that everything wrong with him on the day of an insurance strike was
now suddenly a preexisting condition.
Even as the payouts move inexorably downwards to being less than what you have paid in over
the years, we are such surfs to the insurance companies that just to invoke the true spirit
of the founding of this nation is to give them more power and not less.
So I propose tonight one act with two purposes. I propose we, all of us, embrace the selfless
individuals at the National Association of Free Clinics. You know them. They conducted
the mass health care free clinic in Houston that served 1,500 people.
I want a health care clinic every week in principle cities of the states of the six
senators key to defeating a filibuster against health care reform in the Senate. I want Senators
Lincoln and Pryor to see what health care poverty is really like in Little Rock.
I want Senator Baucus to see it in Butte.
I want Senator Ben Nelson to see it Lincoln.
I want Senator Landrieu to see it in Baton Rouge.
I want Senator Reid to see it in Las Vegas.
I'll donate. How much will you donate? We enable thousands of our neighbors to have
just a portion of the bounty of good health, and we make a statements to the politician,
forgive me William Jennings Brian, "you shall not press down upon the brow of America this
crown of insurance. You shall not crucify man kind upon a cross of blue."
We think these events will be firmed up presently. You will be able to link from our website.
Trust me. I will remind you.
Because in one party, in one demographic, in one protest movement, we're all brothers
and sisters. We are united in membership in the party that insists that every chance at
life be afforded to every American seeking that chance. We are united in membership in
the party that insists on the right of everyone to the startling transcendent the blessings
of the technological advance of medical science.
We're united in membership in the party that is for life, that is against death, that is
for lower premiums, that is against higher deductibles, that is for the peace of mind
that can be provided only by the elimination of the fear that costs will decide whether
we live or we die.
Because that's the point, isn't it? It is hard enough to recover, to fight past pain,
and to stave off death, if just for a season or a week or a day. It is so hard that eventually
for you, for me, for this president, for these Blue Dogs, for these protesters - it is so
hard to recover that, for all of us, there will come a time when we will not recover.
So... why are we making it harder?
On behalf of both of the Olbermanns, good night and good luck.
And now here is my dear friend, Rachel Maddow. Good evening, Rachel.
RACHEL MADDOW: Thank you Keith. Amazing work on the Special Comment tonight.
RACHEL MADDOW: Very hard act to follow. Thanks.
RACHEL MADDOW: We begin our show tonight with extreme pressure being applied to Democrats
in Washington, from the left.