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June 30, 2009

Travels with Uncle Chet: Public option is a first step in health care

COLUMBUS _ I heard the truck crunching gravel before I saw it idling down the driveway.

It parked by the back door, and Uncle Chet got out.

``Down here!'' I hollered from the garden where Hon and I were weeding.

He glanced sharply, grabbed his rod and tackle box from the back of the truck and headed our way. We were sitting on moist, dark earth, hands stained greenish-brown from uprooting the invaders.

``Did that yesterday,'' he said, when within earshot.

I let him walk closer before responding, ``We've got an extra hoe.''

``Good for you,'' he said.

``We're almost done,'' said Hon.

``Looks pretty good,'' he walked up to the chicken-wire fence, stared down a row of tomato plants. ``But you'd better stake those.''

``The stakes and twine are in the woodshed,'' I said.

``Actually, I was going to take Buddy fishing,'' he said. ``Told him I would, the other night.''

``He'll love that; he's in the house,'' said Hon.

``Help yourself,'' I said. ``Five dollars a fish.''

``We'll throw them back in your pond,'' he said.

``Throw them back, that's another $5.''

``Now you sound like a health-insurance company _ `one for you, two for me,''' he said, and lowered the box to the grass. ``You don't have TV, so you haven't seen it, but the insurers, Fox Noise and their Republican lackeys in Congress are stomping on the public option.''

``Still, three-quarters of the people want it,'' I said.

``I think they'll come up with some kind of compromise,'' said Hon as she poured herself a cup of water from the orange Thermos.

``The public option IS the compromise.'' Uncle Chet waved his rod, a long flexing pointer, in emphasis. ``What we want is single-payer, like the best 35 health care systems in the world. And what the right wing wants is to keep the status quo: rationing health care by ability to pay.

``Right in the middle is the public option, where the rich keep their Cadillac coverage, and the rest of us get a chance at something like Medicare.''

``That'd be nice.'' I stopped work, drew a cup of water on this warm, muggy Sunday. ``I remember my father liked Medicare, and he didn't like government much.''

``Everyone likes Medicare because it's efficient,'' he said. ``The cost of administration is 3 percent, compared to 30 percent for the private plans, but you don't hear that on TV.''

``Wouldn't know,'' I said.

``You don't hear anything straightforward because the problem with our corporate health care system is obvious: The industry exists to make money, to enhance shareholder value. And how do they do that? Raise prices, charge people more, something they've been able to do at twice the rate of inflation.

``There's a lot of bellyaching, but they've cornered the market on something you can't do without, so people pay the ransom,'' said Uncle Chet. ``That's why it's a waste of breath asking insurance or pharmaceutical bosses _ people whose jobs depend on fat profit margins, to reduce patient costs.''

``It's like asking them to take a pay cut,'' I said.

``They're responsible to shareholders, not patients; they're not about to do anything to reduce profit,'' he said. ``Politicians know it; they know any reform without a public option is pure charade, but if it keeps the people pacified and the donations coming in, they'll play along.''

``This is very depressing.'' Hon went back to work, pushing the cultivator between rows.

``Despite everything, I think there's a chance this time.'' Uncle Chet picked up his tackle box. ``Harry Truman, the failed haberdasher, pushed for public health care because he knew it was needed, like Social Security. Obama's pushing too, and maybe he's the one with enough fire in his belly to put it over the top.''

``Because of his mother?'' I said.

``Watching her die, penniless, hounded by insurers and bill collectors must have hurt,'' he said.

``I'm tuning this out,'' said Hon.

``I tune it out every Saturday morning, crank up the Sansui and pretend I'm Elvis for a couple hours,'' I said.

``Me, I think about it, toss and turn about it, rant and rave about it, then after a while, I just have to go fishing,'' said Uncle Chet, and turning, he ambled back to the house.


Cooperstown News Bureau Reporter Tom Grace is traveling with his Uncle Chet, who he says is imaginary. Grace's column appears every other week.