The GOP's health care solution.

How to fix health policy.
Aug. 28 2009 1:02 PM

The GOP's Health Solution

Dr. Tom Coburn tells the wife of a brain-injury victim to suck it up.

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is a medical doctor; his press releases frequently refer to him not as "Sen. Coburn" but as "Dr. Coburn." He is also a fervent opponent of Obamacare. Coburn purports to favor an alternative bill so similar to the Democrats' own that one can't help wondering whether his opposition is mere partisan posturing. Another possibility is that Coburn is insincere when he claims to support any change to the current system.

Evidence for the latter is an exchange between Coburn and a weeping constituent who said at an Aug. 24 town hall meeting that her health insurance wouldn't cover rehabilitation for her husband, who suffered a traumatic brain injury. Writing in the New Republic's health care blog, the Treatment, Harold Pollack *, a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, said that when he saw this clip neither he nor his wife, a clinical nurse specialist, "could … believe what we were watching."

Neither could I. Here's a transcript:

Q: Sen. Coburn, we need help. My husband has traumatic brain injury. His health insurance will not cover him to eat and drink. And what I need to know is: Are you going to help him? Where he can eat and drink? We left the nursing home, and they told us we are on our own. He left with a feeding tube. I have been working with him, but I'm not a speech pathologist, a professional that takes six years for a masters', and I'm trying to get him to eat and drink again [inaud].

A: Well, I think—first of all, yeah. We'll help. The first thing we will do is to see what we can do, individually, to help you, through our office. But the other thing that is missing in this debate is us as neighbors, helping people that need our help. [Applause.] You know we tend to ... [Applause.] The idea that the government is a solution to our problems is an inaccurate, a very inaccurate statement.

Pollack, his wife, and Philip Pizzo, dean of Stanford Medical School, found Coburn's answer to be deeply disturbing. I did, too, of course. But what truly shocked and depressed me was not Coburn's let-'em-eat-cake response but the fact that it wasn't met in the room with a collective sharp intake of breath. Instead, Coburn received two quite robust bursts of applause. I have no idea how Congress and the White House can possibly sell health care reform to people like that.

Watch the exchange below:

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Correction, Sept. 1, 2009: An earlier version of this column misspelled Harold Pollack's surname. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.