Michael Hiltzik Columnist
Column

Don't let Rep. Scalise's injury cow us into silence about the need for gun control and universal healthcare

As a necessary prelude to a necessary discussion, surely we all can agree that best wishes are due to the still-hospitalized House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who faces a difficult recovery from injuries suffered in the gun attack at a Republican baseball practice June 14.

The same goes for the other people injured in the attack, congressional aide Zachary Barth, former House staff member Matt Mika, and Capitol Police officers Crystal Griner and David Bailey. Mika was shot in the chest but is recovering, and the others suffered more minor injuries.

But it’s important not to overlook how Scalise’s condition illuminates two of the most important public policy issues facing our country: There are too many guns in the hands of too many unsuitable owners; and healthcare is still treated in the United States as a privilege, not a right.

Scalise’s injury is a consequence of the first, and he’s the beneficiary of the other. They combine to create a public health crisis in America. Scalise and the GOP caucus of which he is a leader have worked assiduously to make it worse, by promoting looser gun ownership laws and reversing the gains of the Affordable Care Act.

To say Scalise deserves to share blame for this situation is not to say that he deserves the punishment of a grave injury. But nor is this an occasion to ignore the policies he espouses and their relationship to the June 14 event and its aftermath.

In a country with sensible and intelligent firearms laws, there’s no way a person with the history of domestic violence of James Hodgkinson, who has been identified as the shooter, would be permitted anywhere near the weapons he was carrying on June 14 — and which reportedly he obtained legally. In a country with a sensible and intelligent healthcare system, the treatment Scalise is receiving as a member of Congress would be equally accessible to any gunshot victim; for the moment it is, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, but Scalise advocates repealing that law.

Politicians often call occasions like this “teachable moments.” Frequently, that’s merely an excuse to dodge serious discussion; somehow, few lessons ever seem to emerge from these “teachable moments.” Scalise himself advocated avoiding turning the Sandy Hook shootings, in which 20 children 6 and 7 years old were murdered by a gun-toting assailant, into a teachable moment. In April 2013, just a few months after the murders, he took to the House floor to state that although “we were all shocked and saddened” by the event, it was unfortunate that “when you have these tragedies, unfortunately, there are people — Washington politicians — who try to take advantage of those tragedies, who then come behind and try to impose their own agendas in the name of somebody else.” He was talking about gun safety advocates.

So let’s take a closer look at Scalise’s positions on gun control and healthcare.

Scalise boasts of his A+ rating from the National Rifle Assn., the nation’s number-one foe of sensible gun legislation. Among the bills he has cosponsored is the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act, a 2011 measure that would have allowed anyone with a valid state-issued concealed firearm permit to carry a concealed firearm in any other state that issues concealed firearm permits, regardless of the other states’ standards for issuing those permits. On Jan. 6, 2016, Scalise could be seen on CNN misrepresenting, and then assailing, President Obama’s day-old executive order designed to tighten the rules on background checks of gun buyers.

Then there’s healthcare. Scalise is undoubtedly receiving the highest-quality treatment at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center. As a member of Congress, he’s eligible for coverage that would relieve him of much of the cost burden of the multiple surgeries he’s had to undergo, a common consequence of serious gunshot wounds.

But as healthcare expert Harold Pollack observes, for many other such victims such a level of care is hanging by a thread. The average cost of inpatient treatment of gunshot wounds was more than $23,000 in 2010, according to the Urban Institute, and that didn’t count long-term, even lifelong, medical needs resulting from the injuries. Nearly one-third of those requiring emergency room treatment for gunshot trauma in 2010 were uninsured.

That changed with the advent of the Affordable Care Act, especially the Medicaid expansion that serves the poorest Americans in states that have accepted it. Scalise and his Republican caucus are determined to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The repeal bill they enacted in early May would strip health coverage by an estimated 23 million Americans, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and wholly eliminate the Medicaid expansion. If that happens, then thousands of gunshot victims would be stuck on the outside of adequate medical treatment, looking in.

Scalise was not shy about bragging about the House repeal measure, which is now before the Republican-controlled Senate. He was photographed at the White House the day of the vote, joshing it up with President Trump in triumph. He asserted that the bill protects those with preexisting conditions: “No one who has coverage can be charged more based on a preexisting condition,” he said. “That is a fact.”

This was a masterstroke of deceit; in fact, the measure would allow states to eviscerate individuals’ protections against losing coverage or being heavily surcharged for preexisting conditions. Scalise claimed the measure would “deliver affordable healthcare to American families,” when it would do precisely the opposite.

One dismal feature of the American political landscape is that every time we experience an outbreak of gun violence, the quality of the debate about gun safety plummets. That’s what happened after Sandy Hook — witness Scalise’s plea not to use those murders of innocent children as an occasion to examine the policies that contributed to their deaths. The same thing happened after the June 14 shooting.

Gun control opponents immediately ruled any discussion of the issue off-limits, as if to respect Rep. Scalise’s suffering. Predictably, twaddle rushed in to fill the vacuum — even including claims that the attack was somehow motivated by a New York production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” featuring a Trump-like figure at center stage; never mind that the the lesson of this 400-year-old play is that its political violence leads inexorably to the destruction of its perpetrators and presages the fall of the Republic.

Instead of debate after every outbreak of mass firearms violence, the call is for silence. But silence is the enemy of wise public policy. It favors narrow interests alone. That’s why the NRA has blocked research into gun violence at the federal level for two decades. It’s why Scalise’s caucus rushed its Obamacare repeal bill to a vote even before the CBO could get a crack at it. (No surprise, since the CBO subsequently detailed its disastrous effect on health coverage for millions of Americans.)

It’s why a small group of Republicans in the Senate, which fashions itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” are keeping their own repeal measure secret even from most of their own party colleagues, and intend to hasten it to a vote without a minute of public hearing and debate.

So, yes, here’s hoping for Scalise’s rapid and complete recovery from his injuries. And more: that he emerges from the hospital with a new understanding of the policies we need to keep such incidents from happening again in America, and to ensure that every American is guaranteed the healthcare that he’s been getting. That would make this truly a teachable moment.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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