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The Wingers Who Cried Wolf

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Listening to right-wing talk radio on the day after Congress passed health care reform, Bill O'Reilly was stunned. To him, the hosts and the callers sounded "crazed" as they shrieked about "the end of the world, we're socialist now, we have to take the country back." Maybe the Fox News host hasn't been listening, but there has been plenty of crazy in the air now for many months on his network and elsewhere on the airwaves.

Going too far for O'Reilly is going very far indeed, but the madness of the conservative reaction has yet to abate. His friend and colleague Glenn Beck declared that health care reform means "the end of prosperity in America forever ... the end of America as you know it."

Bill Hemmer, another Fox host who probably needs medication, has suggested that the legislation will send Americans who don't have health insurance to prison. The Washington Times editorial page compared the bill to the Black Death, and the Drudge Report put up a headline suggesting that its passage is the equivalent of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

On the radio, Rush Limbaugh, the past master of extremist chatter, told his listeners that the bill is an "utter disaster" that represents "the destruction of America as founded." With its new regulation of insurance companies, he warned, this reform will inexorably lead to the destruction of the private health care industry and bring down the health care system, because the real plan is for government to take over all medical care. Lesser wingnuts in print and on the air scream that this bill means government will take over the entire economy and control everything we do -- and even that the costs of health care will somehow result in "global Armageddon."

Stirring up such lunacy almost worked for the Republicans, who came close to stopping health care reform again. Each episode of reform versus reaction has seen them go further and further in falsehood and demagoguery, and each time they have prevailed until now. But this time, with reform signed into law, they may suffer the consequences, when their own lies come around to hit them like a boomerang.

Health care reform isn't socialism (just ask the old Socialist Party USA, which has denounced the bill for that very reason). It isn't the end of the world, the destruction of the American system or the ruin of democratic capitalism. It won't mean that government is taking over the health care system. It isn't going to send anyone to prison or arraign elderly patients in front of "death panels."

Over the next six months, millions of voters will take a deep breath and realize that those attacks were blatantly untrue. They may even discover that the bill passed by the Democrats and signed by President Obama will benefit their families immediately.

Although many of the bill's most significant changes will not become effective until 2014, several important reforms will take effect this year. Insurance companies will be prohibited from their notorious practice of dropping coverage of people who get sick. Their rules on lifetime limits will be eliminated, and their limits on annual coverage will be liberalized.

Insurers will no longer be permitted to exclude children from coverage because of pre-existing conditions. And uninsured adults who have pre-existing conditions that prevented them from obtaining insurance will get coverage from a special risk pool that will end when the new insurance exchanges -- where private companies will compete -- go into operation a few years from now. A similar program will cover early retirees who are too young to qualify for Medicare, assisting companies in turning over their workforce and creating jobs.

The bill also closes the infamous "doughnut hole" that the Republicans created when they wrote the Medicare Part D drug coverage bill. Patients who fall into that gap will receive a $250 rebate right away, and the hole will eventually be closed completely.

Limbaugh listeners and Fox fans will stick their fingers in their ears and scream "socialism," but the rest of America may listen -- and then decide, sometime between now and Election Day, that passing health care reform was the right thing to do.

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