consider Arizona Sen. John McCain to be an American hero. He valiantly served our country in Vietnam and endured nearly six years of torture and medical neglect as a prisoner of war. My father was a Vietnam veteran, and I understand the sacrifice McCain made in a war that became deeply unpopular with the American public. McCain deserves our profound gratitude and respect. But not for the vote he made on Tuesday.
McCain voted with 49 other Republican senators and Vice President Mike Pence — who cast the tie-breaking vote — to allow the Senate to debate legislation aimed at repealing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Through that law, millions of additional Americans have had access to health care since 2014.
McCain’s vote to let debate move forward, despite his criticisms of the Senate process that produced the various bills, and his subsequent vote in a failed attempt to pass one of the proposals were particularly ironic because he returned to the Senate after undergoing neurosurgery to remove a blood clot and brain tumor, for which he likely faces the prospect of future sophisticated treatments.
I had hoped that the recent experience of having ready access to complex diagnostic services and surgery — involving expensive technology possibly developed with taxpayer-subsidized research and paid for by the generous health benefits that members of Congress receive — would have impressed upon McCain the vulnerabilities that we all have to unexpected health care crises. I expected that this experience would have caused him to reconsider his role in enabling the headlong Republican rush to eliminate the possibility for tens of millions of his fellow citizens to get the same kind of rapid, excellent treatment he received.
I also hoped that this unwelcome pause in his Senate schedule would have made him consider that he suffers from several preexisting conditions that would render him virtually uninsurable at an affordable price on the private insurance market. Any version of the pending legislation that the Senate will now debate will make the average person in McCain’s situation unable to afford premiums calculated to take account of conditions which many have at birth or, like McCain’s glioblastoma, acquire through no fault of their own.
I do not begrudge McCain the health care he has received. But I believe that any public official who purports to represent ordinary Americans would want every one of his or her constituents to have the same opportunity for lifesaving care.
Proponents of voting to undo the progress in health care coverage that the Affordable Care Act has made possible argue that Republicans must fulfill their seven-year vow to “repeal” the ACA and show the public that Republicans can “get something done.” Keeping that pledge would make sense if Republicans were considering alternatives that would address some of the ACA’s weaknesses and build on its successes.
But the bill passed by the House of Representatives in April would do no such thing. The details of the Senate bills that have been made public would eliminate Medicaid coverage for millions of low-income people, cut funding for elderly nursing home care, and return the private insurance markets to the bad old days with no coverage for preexisting conditions.
Profiles in courage are drawn when public figures reexamine the facts and reconsider catchy, but flawed, campaign promises and act to govern in the public interest. The “repeal and replace” mantra was a reckless slogan. The Republicans should admit that this goal was erroneous and now do the right thing for the entire country. Passage of any of these bills will send the insurance markets into turmoil and undermine the infrastructure of hospital care upon which we all rely because hospitals once again will be confronted with providing care to millions more who lack insurance.
As a prisoner of war, McCain had opportunities to be released because his father was a high-ranking Navy admiral. He always declined, waiting his turn in the prisoner exchange process — a brave commitment to valuing freedom for others as much as freedom for himself. I would have wished that McCain’s recent health care experience would have caused him to consider the advantages he benefits from and to cast a courageous vote that signals that the nation’s leaders value the lives and health of all Americans as much as they do their own.
Renée M. Landers is professor of law and faculty director of the health and biomedical law concentration at Suffolk University Law School. She was deputy general counsel of the Department of Health and Human Services from 1996 to 1997.