The fear mongerers who think Obama wants to kill old people.

How to fix health policy.
July 28 2009 7:30 PM

Scaring Grandma

Why everyone in the heath care fight—including Obama—plays on the anxieties of the elderly.

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To be sure, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for seniors to be concerned about reform. Seniors already have universal health care in the form of Medicare. There remains the possibility that a broader universal plan will drain resources from a program they like as it is, thank you very much. Indeed, much of the overspending on health care occurs under Medicare. And a large portion of Medicare spending—about 30 percent—occurs in the last year of a patient's life. Seniors have every reason to ask questions.

But scaring Grandma is irresistible. Even Obama is hardly immune to fear mongering. When a questioner voiced concerns about rationing under a new system, Obama posed a counterfactual: What happens if we don't pass health care reform? "[The] thing that I would be most worried about right now is health care inflation keeps on going up and the trust fund in 10 years is suddenly in the red. And now Congress has to make some decisions: Are they going to put more money into Medicare, especially given the deficits and the debt that we already have? Or are they, at that point, going to start making decisions about cutting benefits, but not based on any science or what's making people healthier—they're just going to start making it based on politics?"

Mixing politics and health care? It sounds scary. But Obama's answer—in fact, his entire town-hall meeting—shows that we've already crossed that line. The question is whether the fear is justified.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.