08.31.09

The Latest Health Care Lie

Death panels, forced abortions—opponents of health-care reform are now claiming that it will kill women with breast cancer. The Daily Beast’s Michelle Goldberg investigates the right’s latest smear.

Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that the right’s latest line of attack against health-care reform is far subtler than the “death panel” smear. The new conservative talking point is aimed at women rather than seniors, and it has a kind of surface plausibility that may make it particularly effective. Put simply, the right is claiming that Democratic plans to reform health care will lead to more women dying from breast cancer.

This meme has been around for a while; back in June, Sean Hannity claimed that, should health-care reform succeed, “we’re going to have a government rationing body that tells women with breast cancer, ‘you’re dead.’” Now, though, there’s a systematic effort to publicize the argument. The Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative group, is spending over $2 million to broadcast a commercial in eight battleground states, including Colorado, Indiana and Nevada, in which breast-cancer survivor Tracy Walsh warns that health-care reform could kill women like her. Speaking over melancholy piano music, she says, “If you find a lump, you could wait months for treatment, and potentially life-saving drugs could be restricted. Government control of health care here could have meant that 300,000 women with breast cancer here might have died.” In a fundraising email with the subject line “More American Women Are Going to Die,” the IWF invoked “real people who might not make it if President Obama inflicts his nationalized healthcare on America.”

The effort to link health-care reform to breast cancer death is coming from the same people who’ve previously compared health care reform to the Holocaust.

The Independent Women’s Forum is closely linked to Americans for Prosperity, a major organizer of anti-Obama tea parties and town hall protests. (According to Sourcewatch.org, the two groups shared the same address and most of the same operations staff until last year). So the effort to link health-care reform to breast cancer death is coming from the same people who’ve previously compared health care reform to the Holocaust. The new tack sounds slightly more reasonable, and it’s developing legs.

A week ago, The New York Times ran a long, page-one feature about Bob Collier, a Georgia man described as one of the “calmer, more reasoned” opponents of the Democrats’ plans. At a town hall, Collier told Cong. Stanford Bishop that his wife had survived breast cancer through early detection and treatment, but he feared she could be put on a waiting list for care if Obama got his way. The Times story presents the Colliers as rational, ordinary people with “legitimate concerns” about health- care reform. It waits until after the jump from Page One to note that they are committed conservatives who “receive much of their information from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh’s radio program, and Matt Drudge’s website.”

John McCain, another conservative with a reputation for reasonableness, brought up the breast-cancer argument at a town hall last Tuesday. England, he said, has “repeatedly blocked breast cancer patients from receiving breakthrough drugs. … That's what they do there. But obviously we don't want that in this country.”

The entire argument about breast cancer and health care reform is based on a comparison of survival rates in the United States and England. There’s little question that breast cancer treatment is better in the U.S. Last summer, The Lancet Oncology Magazine published a comprehensive international comparison on cancer survival. It found that five years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, American women had an 83.7 percent chance of survival, while those in England had only a 69.8 percent chance. England, which lags behind the U.S. in screening, has a government-run health program, while the United States does not. This is being interpreted as proof that government-run health care leads to more cancer deaths. And that is a dishonest distortion.

Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that no one is proposing single-payer health care in the United States—much to the despair of many liberals. Several countries with socialized medicine have breast-cancer survival rates that are barely distinguishable from our own. According to the Lancet study, Canada’s five-year survival rate is 82.5 percent, and France’s is 79.8 percent. (Both countries also have less breast cancer overall -- indeed, for reasons no one quite understands, the United States has among the highest breast cancer incidence in the world. French women are more likely to survive colon and rectal cancers than American women, though again, the differences are quite small. Meanwhile, the Lancet study shows, one country has a higher breast-cancer survival rate than the United States—Cuba. The study’s authors point out that this could be due to faulty Cuban record keeping. But overall, there’s nothing in the study to suggest that government involvement in health care harms women.

Quite the opposite, in fact. As should be well known by now, American women have a lower life expectancy than those in England, France, Japan, Canada, and several other developed countries. Meanwhile, horror stories about the rationing of cancer care by the American insurance industry abound. In an almost grotesque irony, it turns out that Mr. Collier’s wife endured one of them. Their insurance refused to cover Ms. Collier’s radiation treatments, leaving them owing $63,000 that their hospital eventually wrote off.

This is not uncommon—breast cancer survivors, including those with insurance, are regularly bankrupted by the cost of their treatment. That’s one reason the major breast cancer advocacy organizations strongly support health care reform.

Dara Richardson-Heron is a physician and breast cancer survivor who now heads the greater New York affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. After watching the IWF’s ad, she says, “I just think it sends the wrong message. Clearly as [a leader of] an organization that is a strong advocate for the health and well-being of women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, I really want to promote health reform because I feel that it will be beneficial to cancer survivors as well as the 46 million plus Americans who currently lack health insurance.”

Richardson-Heron hopes that if health care reform does pass, it will include new funding for early detection, which is the key to beating breast cancer. Should we get to that point, it will be instructive to see whether conservatives retain their newfound passion for women’s health.

Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the Worldand Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.