Opinion Column

The GOP’s Health Policy Cynics

The health care community is discovering to its shock and dismay that it’s not simply traditional Republican conservatives who have taken control of the House of Representatives, it’s a new group of cynics.

Conservatives, like liberals, have a more-or-less coherent set of ideas. They use political power to push preferred policies, whether related to health care, housing or a hundred other possible issues. William F. Buckley Jr., one of the fathers of modern American conservatism, “had a way of … making conservatism a holistic view of life not narrowed to the playing fields of ideology alone,” as one admirer put it.

Although cynics may claim conservative credentials, their view of government is really nothing more than a quarrel about its cost. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s immortal phrase, “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

The contrast between the two viewpoints was on stark display at two recent marquée meetings, AcademyHealth’s yearly policy conference and the sprawling Health Information and Management Systems Society — HIMSS — Health IT Conference and Exhibition.

AcademyHealth’s “Running of the Wonks” (my term, not theirs) is a magnet for researchers and policy mavens who are inured by long experience to most political rhetoric. Yet at the general session featuring a bipartisan dialogue among congressional staffers, the harsh rhetoric from the GOP participants stunned the crowd. The new federal health law, it seemed, was evil incarnate, and the rhetoric of “repeal and replace” was wielded with a fundamentalist zeal.

“The bureaucracies that administer ObamaCare” must be cut, declared one aide to a powerful congressional leader, setting the tone. And in case anyone didn’t get the point, the word “ObamaCare” was deliberately repeated every few syllables in a tone of disdain combined with wonder at how such a monstrosity had ever come to be. (AcademyHealth meeting rules said the staffers could not be quoted by name.)

The audience of wonks quailed, then quietly queued up for the question-and-answer period. They knew, after all, that the health law’s fine print incorporates a generous helping of initiatives championed by both conservatives, and those on the left. Besides, these were staffers speaking, not politicians playing to the press. Surely, gentle reason would triumph. Alas, it was not to be.

The Prevention and Public Health Fund? “You mean, the prevention health slush fund, as we like to refer to it?” replied a GOP staffer.

The Innovation Center at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services? “An innovation center at CMS is an oxymoron,” responded a  Republican aide, before adding a personal barb aimed at the attendees: “Though it’s great for PhDs who come to Washington on the government tab.”

There was also no reason the government should pay for “so-called comparative effectiveness research,” another said.

“Everything’s on the chopping block,” said yet another.

Everything? At HIMSS, where GOP staffers also spoke, attendees were chagrined to learn that “everything” applied to them, too. The subsidies for health information technology that were part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were targeted in legislation introduced in late January by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chairman of the Republican Study Group. His bill would repeal this funding and eliminate all remaining stimulus spending, including about $45 billion in unspent health IT funds.

Those focused on the substance of health policy might be forgiven for feeling blindsided. After all, the McCain-Palin health policy platform in the 2008 presidential election called for coordinated care, greater use of health information technology and a focus on Medicare payment for value, not volume. Once-and-future Republican presidential candidates such as former governors Mike Huckabee (Ark.), Mitt Romney (Mass.) and Tim Pawlenty (Minn.), as well as ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, have long promoted disease prevention, a more innovative federal government and increased use of information technology. Indeed, federal health IT “meaningful use” requirements can even be seen as a direct consequence of Gingrich’s popularization of the phrase, “Paper kills.”

Ah, but that was back before the Republican cynics swept into power. It was back before traditional GOP conservatives — worried that any suggestions outside a single-minded focus on slashing spending would be seen as disloyal — eschewed ideas in favor of ideological declarations.

This column was filed just days after a two-week compromise was signed into law to avoid a federal government shutdown. It allowed funding for health reform to continue, but instituted other budget cuts. Obviously, the cynics yielded a bit, at least for the moment, to the conservatives, and the liberals and centrists have given ground to both.

Still, one wonders what the urbane Buckley would think of a movement that seems intent on ignoring the real-world context of its actions. Buckley launched his lifetime crusade against liberalism with God and Man at Yale, a book that took aim at the academics who’d taught him as an Ivy League undergraduate. Alas, the GOP cynics are cocooned instead in an underground bunker of their own design, as impervious to realities they’d prefer to ignore as the ivory tower academics they’ve come to scorn.