Listening closely to the politicians with the most clout in the debate over health care, it is startling to discover how little they actually seem to know about the subject.

Ignorance rules, even among the bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Six,” who supposedly have immersed themselves in the details of this life-and-death issue for many months. If they understood even the most basic facts about how the United States and other advanced countries provide and finance medical care, they simply could not utter the stupid comments that regularly emanate from their lips.

Every catalog of mindless remarks about health care must include at least one rant by Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who has wasted the country’s time by pretending to seek a bipartisan solution when he simply wants to stall or kill President Barack Obama’s proposed reforms.

Not so long ago, Grassley alleged he had been told that “government-run” systems in other countries would have denied treatment to Sen. Edward Kennedy for his ultimately fatal brain tumor because he was 77 years old. That statement drew outraged attention from British doctors, who believed that the Iowa senator was talking about their practices. “Jaw-droppingly untruthful,” protested the chairman of the British Medical Association, who said he found such attacks astonishing.

Sen. Mike Enzi, the Wyoming Republican who has connived in the Gang of Six farce, has made similar ominous comments about the medical rationing and reductions in care that would ensue from a “government-run option.” He often says something like this while making speeches in which he also claims to be defending Medicare for seniors — which indicates that he doesn’t understand that Medicare is, in fact, a “government-run” program.

It is hard to believe that any United States senator could truly be so obtuse about our own government-run system, having voted on Medicare finances and regulations annually for years. Yet these same geniuses don’t seem to realize that they have also authorized and financed one of the most thoroughly socialized medical systems in the world — the highly successful, respected and innovative Veterans Health Administration.

Yes, the VA system is even more “socialist” than Medicare, because the VA runs the hospitals and hires the doctors directly (like the British system), while Medicare simply pays fees to hospitals and doctors (as does the Canadian or French system). Which brings us to the topic of health care regimes in other countries, and yet another amazing display of ignorance by a member of the Gang of Six.

Just the other day, Sen. Kent Conrad tried to explain his fervent opposition to a “public option” by mentioning the way they do things abroad. The Democrat from North Dakota wanted to tell his “progressive friends” that we can achieve universal coverage, reduce costs — like all of the industrial nations that pay far less than we do — and get better results. Referring to systems in France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Japan, he said, “All of them contain costs, have universal coverage, have very high-quality care and yet are not government-run systems.”

It is true that the countries named by Conrad achieve all those benchmarks, but it is false that none of them have government-run health care.

France, which probably has the best system in the world, is essentially a single-payer plan that operates under the French social security system. Germany prohibits insurance companies from making any profit on basic coverage.

Japan provides insurance at a very low cost to families and individuals, with private coverage used for only a narrow range of services. Switzerland runs insurance plans that are so highly regulated, with prices of services and drugs set by the government, that they would be denounced as communist if anyone tried to impose them here.

Conrad, like his colleagues from Iowa and Wyoming, travels abroad on tax dollars, receives excellent briefings and reports from the Congressional Research Service and employs lots of staff members to help him.

Can they really be that dumb? Or do they just assume that we are?

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2009

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