By Adam Weinstein
Poor Joe Wilson. The conservative Republican representative from South Carolina stepped in it Wednesday night when he broke with centuries of decorum by screaming, "You lie!" at President Obama during his health-care speech to a joint session of Congress.
Cut the man some slack. He's passionate! I know this because he told me, in the sole message that blazes across his campaign Web site: JOE WILSON IS PASSIONATE ABOUT STOPPING GOVERNMENT RUN HEALTH CARE!
Except that he's not─at least not when it comes to his, and his family's, government-run health care. As a retired Army National Guard colonel, Wilson gets a lot of benefits (one of which, apparently, was not a full appreciation of the customs, traditions, and courtesies that mandate respect for one's commander in chief). And with four sons in the armed services, the entire Wilson brood has enjoyed multiple generations of free military medical coverage, known as TRICARE.
Yes, it's true. As politicos and town-hall criers debate the finer points of the public option, employer mandates, coverage for undocumented immigrants, and who's more Hitler-like, they seem to miss a larger point: the United States has single-payer health care. It covers 9.5 million active-duty servicemen and women, military retirees, and their dependents─including almost a 10th of all Californians and Floridians, and nearly a quarter of a million residents of Wilson's home state.
Military beneficiaries like Wilson─who, as a retiree, is eligible for lifetime coverage─never have to worry about an eye exam, a CT scan, a prolonged labor, or an open-heart surgery. They have access not only to the military's 133,500 uniformed health professionals, but cooperating private doctors as well─whose fees are paid by the Department of Defense. It's high-quality care, too: surveys from 2007 and 2008 list TRICARE among "the best health insurer(s) in the nation" by customer satisfaction. Yet Wilson insists government-run health care is a problem.
To be fair, Wilson has been consistent in his policymaking if not his personal life: according to his last congressional opponent, Wilson voted 11 times against health care for veterans in eight years, even as he voted "aye" for the Iraq War (during the debate on the war vote, he even called one Democrat "viscerally anti-American"─several times). He voted to cut veterans' benefits─not his own─to make room for President George W. Bush's tax cuts. He repeatedly voted for budgets that slashed funding to the Veterans Administration and TRICARE. And perhaps most bizarrely, he refused─repeatedly─to approve Democratic-led initiatives that would have extended TRICARE coverage to all reservists and National Guard members, even though a disproportionate number of them have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan─and many lost access to their civilian work benefits when they did so.
There's one other notable exception to Wilson's tough-on-government record: In July, when the health-insurance debate just started heating up, he offered an amendment that would exempt TRICARE from any system of employer mandates in a health-care bill. It's not clear whether this is necessary, since most such bills in Congress keep government benefits exempt from the rules as a matter of course. But Wilson took the opportunity to make his stand.
"As a 31-year Army Guard and Reserve veteran, I know the importance of TRICARE," he said in a press release. "The number of individuals who choose to enroll in TRICARE continues to rise because TRICARE is a low cost, comprehensive health plan that is portable and available in some form world-wide." He went on to call TRICARE "world class health care," concluding on a personal note. "I am grateful to have four sons now serving in the military, and I know that their families appreciate the availability of TRICARE," he said.
What does that mean? Nothing─except that Joe Wilson was against government-run health care before he was for it. And now he's against it again. Just not when it comes to his own flesh and blood.
Adam Weinstein, an Iraq veteran, is a freelance journalist. He is uninsured.