Last Saturday I was in Atlanta where I was part of what is likely to be a turning point in American politics. The event was billed as America's Health Care Town Hall. It started with a conversation at a fast-food restaurant a month ago between Allen Hardage, who owns an ad agency, and his friend Stephen Northington, an insurance agent, about ways to share their concern and opposition to the current health care proposals making their way through Congress. They decided on a rally that would do two things that were not taking place inside the Beltway: bring together people to express their own concerns about the lost of control over medical decisions and present alternatives that gave individuals more control over the cost and character of healthcare
Without any money, Hardage and Northington sent out emails to friends, neighbors, talk show hosts and many free market organizations inviting speakers, putting together panels, and going about the task of organizing an event that hoped would attract up to 20,000 people to Atlanta's Centennial Park. Hardage and Northington assembled a long list of speakers including Ralph Reed, former House Majority leader Dick Armey, George state officials, and conservative talk show hosts Herman Cain and Joel Aaron. Country music singer John Berry performed a new song he wrote for the event, "Give Me Back My America."
Let me dispense with the now standard disclaimer about the civility of the crowd that did gather. The people who attended -- about 12,000 in all if you go by the number of wrist bracelets handed out as a security measure -- were more than civil, they were fun, friendly and warm. They came with signs and in costumes that ranged from silly to ironic. One woman was dressed as the Grim Reaper coming to kill medical innovation under government-run health care. Many were dressed as soldiers from the War of Independence. Another guy was dressed as a superhero ready to save America from socialized healthcare.
And people were informed. Do you know the current total unfunded liability for Medicare? Lots of people at the rally did. It's $89 trillion. Do you know if comparative effectiveness will be used to determine what doctors get paid in Medicare and health exchanges? The answer is yes.
People knew aspects of the legislation inside and out. They believe -- rightly in my opinion -- that the legislation has nothing to do with addressing the issue of affordability, of choice or quality. The legislation, as one young woman put it to me, "has more to do with freedom than health care. "
There was anger. But there was no uncontrollable rage aimed at any elected official or policy. Rather it was the passion to fight back against being disenfranchised twice: first by watching the political system craft a health care bill that ignored the choices and concerns of most Americans and secondly giving government control over those choices: Even without a so-called public plan, the legislation gives government bureaucrats significant control over the future direction of medicine and power to ration care, delay innovation, and reshape the doctor-patient relationship.
As a result, individuals are now engaged in health care as never before. They do not trust Washington to solve the problems or even define them. Whether or not a bill is passed or not matters in only one respect: a vote to increase the government's role in health care will increase the speed, size, and intensity of what is clearly a health care self-determination movement.
Its aims are specific, substantive and policy oriented. First, stop the shift towards health care centralization. (That might require political change if the bill passes.) Second, adopt solutions that promote choice, encourage personal responsibility and accelerate the of use medical innovations to enhance the doctor-patient relationship. At the rally I was part of a group discussing specific ways of accomplishing such goals: allowing people to buy health care across state lines, get reduced premiums for healthy behavior, allowing doctors and consumers to form networks outside of existing regulations.
I went out on a limb twice. I told the crowd I was a Yankee fan to stress how "bipartisan" the event was. I was booed. Then I talked briefly about how poor farmers in India are part of group health plans they have designed themselves and where their payments go down when they seek early treatment. "If it can done in India using American technology, why not in America?"
That drew lots of applause. Not for me. For the idea and for what inspired the rally, and what ultimately has redefined the health care debate: the insistence that health care requires not a public plan but innovation and self-determination. Health care is not a crisis. It is an opportunity to improve America's health, increase its prosperity, and renew its promise.