Note: This article initially appeared on the WPRI Blog in August of 2007. However, during the 2008 presidential campaign, “you deserve health care as good as members of Congress” has become a standard talking point, so I thought it would be worth re-posting.

August 1, 2007:

Yesterday, State Senator Jon Erpenbach held a press conference on his “Healthy Wisconsin” universal health care plan to say… well, to say pretty much the same thing he’s been saying all along. His main talking point is that people should have health care as good as their state legislators. He calls legislators who oppose the plan “hypocrites” for accepting almost-free health care themselves, while “denying” it to their constituents.

Without a doubt, it is an effective talking point, given the low approval ratings of state elected officials. Erpenbach could have picked any number of state employees who take part in the state insurance plan as an example (UW Professors, DNR wardens, that guy sitting in a cubicle at the Department of Revenue), but he chose elected officials because they give him the most political bang for his buck. The calculus is pretty easy to work out: “Boo, elected officials!” “Yay, me!”

This line of thinking is intended to build public support for the proposal based on sheer envy. How is it rational to completely overhaul the state’s health care system because we’re jealous of something a few people have? Regardless of whether you think state legislators should have health care, is it really worth bankrupting the state to pull 5 million people in the state closer to those 132 legislators?

As long as we’re making public policy based on things a handful of legislators have, let’s go all the way. Can’t we guarantee that everyone in the state makes $45,000 a year, like they do? Can we make sure all Wisconsin residents get 32 cents per mile travel reimbursement to drive to work? I propose everyone in the state get a free parking spot on the Capitol square.

Unfortunately, if the Senate Democrats’ government-run health care plan passed, everyone would have similar health care. Unfortunately, both you and your state legislator would have similarly crappy health care. As has been discussed at length in other venues, universal health care means waiting lists, rationed care, and migration of sick people to Wisconsin to take advantage of the plan. So congratulations on having the same health care as your state representative – now go home and wait for three months for a doctor to see you about that cough.

Another aspect of Erpenbach’s rhetoric is interesting, as well. He claims that legislators who oppose his plan are “hypocrites.” Regardless of what you think of the plan or of legislators, I don’t at all see what’s “hypocritical” about wanting to keep the same system that provides the best health care in the nation to you and your constituents. That seems entirely consistent. In fact, the state teacher’s union (WEAC) spends a great deal of time lobbying to keep their system of health insurance intact, since it is run by the union itself. Are they hypocrites, too?

In fact, Erpenbach’s plan carves teachers out of the universal pool altogether – meaning, he thinks government-run health care should be mandatory for all Wisconsin residents – except for teachers, who happen to be his biggest supporters. Certainly no hypocrisy there.

So which is more hypocritical – a legislator defending the free market health insurance system, or a legislator using the lucrative health insurance benefit for 9 years, then deciding it’s evil when it’s politically expedient? Somehow, I don’t recall legislators complaining about their health benefits before this universal plan became an issue – and I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Jon Erpenbach to reimburse the state for covering him and his family since 1998.

So far, I’ve probably heard 20 different people use the “you deserve health care as good as your state legislators” line. It’s cheap and easy, and plays on people’s dislike of elected officials. But jealousy is probably the worst way to formulate public policy – any time you need to fall back on one of the seven deadly sins to push your plan, you may want to reconsider your public relations strategy.

-February 11, 2008