The saga between late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy has been an embarrassing bit of political theater, to say the least. This April, after Kimmel had a child born with a congenital heart defect, he openly defended the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, on grounds that it would ensure that his child was not denied coverage as a result of having a preexisting condition.
It was a mawkish display, and the obvious point was to shame those who oppose Obamacare. However, the monologue was fully consistent with Kimmel’s general shtick. He’s notorious for eschewing the usual kind, approachable image most late-night hosts strive to cultivate. Some of his segments have been described as mean spirited. It’s an attitude that mixes poorly with politics, but it’s hard to avoid examples.
Indeed, two years ago, famed “nice guy” Jay Leno took Kimmel to task for his antics, opining that he has a problem with “arrogance . . . he has a mean streak, and it comes across.”
Likewise, Kimmel does not possess a background that screams “policy expert.” His higher education consisted of a year at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and two years at Arizona State. Rather, his background is in crude comedy, zingers, and pot shots. The chances of informed debate with a guy like Kimmel were slim to none.
It was against this backdrop that Cassidy unwisely decided to respond to Kimmel. Cassidy told CNN that any new healthcare legislation should pass the “Jimmy Kimmel test.” Cassidy put the question it this way: “Would the child born with a congenital heart disease be able to get everything she or he would need in that first year of life … even if they go over a certain amount?”
This is not the most clear test, particularly not when discussing complex policies with competing interests. It also implied, perhaps, that Kimmel would be the final arbiter of whether the test was met.
Now that the Graham-Cassidy healthcare reform bill is being pushed in the Senate, Kimmel has now come out of the woodwork again to dominate the debate. True to form, Kimmel became downright nasty. He flat-out said that Cassidy “lied,” and described one of his critics, Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade as “a phony little creep.”
Kimmel did attempt a substantive critique of Graham-Cassidy, laying out various ways in which ths legislation is supposedly inadequate. Cassidy responded that Kimmel simply doesn’t understand the bill. On this point, Cassidy is correct (even the left-leaning PolitiFact admits that Kimmel is greatly overstating his case) and nothing in Graham-Cassidy necessarily negates the “Jimmy Kimmel test” in the narrow sense as Cassidy originally described it.
Alas, that is no longer the point. Cassidy’s invocation of Kimmel placed the comedian at the center of the debate, and a guy like Kimmel doesn’t traffic in reasoned debate. He’s also not a nice guy. Cassidy fought with a dog and now he has fleas.
What Cassidy and other opponents of Obamacare need to do now is stop being on the defensive and allowing sideshows like the Kimmel debacle control the debate. One of the chief virtues of Graham-Cassidy is that it seeks to stop penalizing people who either can’t or won’t purchase massively overpriced healthcare plans. Saving the government money is all well and good, and it’s a far bigger concern as a strict matter of policy, but it’s the impact on individuals that will sell reform to people who deal in sound bites.
Cassidy needs to distill his pitch down to a simple message: Obamacare is cruel because it destroyed the market for individual plans. Prior to Obamacare, high-deductible plans were available from multiple insurers and those plans were reasonably affordable. For those who lack W-2 income, particularly contract workers and the self-employed, these plans ensured they would not be bankrupted by a major medical emergency. People who sought individual plans were often young and entrepreneurial – the backbone of economic growth in the American economy.
Now, under Obamacare, those high-deductable plans often cost several times more than before, and they still provide virtually no day-to-day coverage. Subsidies are provided, but they only cover a certain spectrum of people, with gaps you could drive a semi through. New business reports a loss? Sorry, no subsidy. Earn a bit too much? You’re out of luck.
Oh, and then you’ll pay a tax penalty for the privilege of being priced out. It’s the gratuitous kick in the groin from the absconding thief.
This is not a minor flaw; it is a moral disaster. People who are willing to pay for coverage are instead paying premiums designed to subsidize others, people who are frequently in a better situation to afford them. Despite the existence of subsidies for some and a Medicaid expansion for others, Obamacare often takes from the poor and middle class and gives to the rich.
Instead of accepting Kimmel’s test, Cassidy should have responded with one of his own: That he will not accept any scheme that prices anybody – even a single person – out of the individual insurance market, and then adds insult to injury by imposing a tax penalty for the Catch-22 the government put them in. Anybody who accepts the status quo while preaching compassion needs to explain how that Kafkaesque outcome is acceptable.
The heartstrings pull both ways. Cassidy needs to trot out the young small business owner who can’t afford to pay $500 a month for a policy with a $10,000 deductible, and people like Kimmel need to explain why that sheer level of insanity should be tolerated. The ensuing silence will make the case for immediate reform.
Owen M. Courrèges is an attorney living in New Orleans. He has previously written for Uptown Messenger, the Reason Public Policy Foundation, and The Lone Star Times.