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An inconvenient truth in the health care debate: 'People will die'

Some on the right aren't comfortable talking about the GOP health plan leading to deaths. Reality, however, is stubborn.
A sign at an Affordable Care Act outreach event in Los Angeles, California, September 28, 2013.
A sign at an Affordable Care Act outreach event in Los Angeles, California, September 28, 2013.

On Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) raised an important argument against the Republican health care plan: "Let us be clear and this is not trying to be overly dramatic: Thousands of people will die if the Republican health care bill becomes law." Soon after, Hillary Clinton added, "Forget death panels. If Republicans pass this bill, they're the death party."

Such talk didn't impress Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "The brief time when we were not accusing those we disagree with of murder was nice while it lasted," the Republican senator wrote.

The idea that the GOP's legislation may lead to preventable American deaths appears to be a touchy subject for some on the right. Republicans no doubt expect pushback on their regressive health care proposal, but to argue that people will quite literally die as a consequence of GOP senators' actions is apparently a talking point some on the right consider offensive and inappropriate.

The trouble is, whether the truth hurts Republicans' feelings or not, there's ample reason to believe Sanders' and Clinton's point is true. The Washington Post ran this striking quote over the weekend:

"There has never been a rollback of basic services to Americans like this ever in U.S. history," said Bruce Siegel, president of America's Essential Hospitals, a coalition of about 300 hospitals that treat a large share of low-income patients. "Let's not mince words. This bill will close hospitals. It will hammer rural hospitals, it will close nursing homes. It will lead to disabled children not getting services.... People will die."

Atul Gawande also spoke to Vox about the available evidence. "The bottom line," the surgeon and scholar said, "is that if you're passing a bill that cuts $1.2 trillion in taxes that have paid for health care coverage, there's almost no way that does not end up terminating insurance for large numbers of people. If you are doing that, then there's clear evidence that you will be harming people. You will be hurting their access to care. You will be harming their health -- their physical health and mental health. There will be deaths. As a doctor, I find this unconscionable."

There is a certain irony to Republicans whining about this. During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, some of the more ridiculous voices in GOP politics pushed the "death panel" garbage as if it were a legitimate argument -- because they seriously expected Americans to believe the reform law would empower bureaucrats to kill vulnerable people.

This was, of course, insanely untrue, though it adds a rhetorical wrinkle to the current Republican argument that connecting reform proposals to mortality rates is beyond the pale.

But even putting questions of hypocrisy aside, there's no reason to wall off this topic as part of the debate. The consequences of policymaking matter, and if the consequences of the Republican health plan is preventable American deaths, it's a facet of the conversation the public need to be aware of.

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) was confronted last month by a constituent who said the GOP's approach on this issue would likely cost some Americans their lives. "That line is so indefensible," Labrador replied. "Nobody dies because they don't have access to health care."

This, of course, was completely wrong, and it led to several reports pointing to the statistical evidence. Those who want health care advocates to stop bringing up the subject might want to take a look.