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GOP sees disconnect between universal phone, healthcare coverage

Most conservatives are perfectly at ease with the idea of requiring all phone users to pay a fee to provide universal coverage for telecom services. But they balk at the idea when it comes to health insurance.

November 08, 2011|David Lazarus

Conservatives tend to become apoplectic at the thought of the government requiring people to pay for health insurance or any form of public program designed to provide universal coverage.

Yet most of those same conservatives — including Republican lawmakers — are perfectly at ease with the idea of requiring that all phone users pay a fee intended to provide universal coverage for telecom services.

This disparity (or hypocrisy) was on full display as the one Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission joined his three Democratic colleagues recently in voting to overhaul a decades-old system of providing subsidies for phone service in rural areas.

Those subsidies — $4.5 billion worth — will now be dedicated primarily to ensuring that rural communities have access to high-speed Internet services.

This is an important change, and the FCC was wise to make it. Federal subsidies for traditional phone service date to the 1930s. The so-called Universal Services Fund was established in 1997 and raises billions of dollars annually to defray phone companies' costs in extending phone lines to far-flung areas.

But universal phone service is no longer an issue. These days, a more pressing concern is extending broadband Internet access to all homes.

Almost one-third of the country currently lacks such access, the FCC says. The United States currently ranks ninth worldwide for wireless broadband access and 12th for wired access such as cable and DSL services.

So the FCC was right when it called the rejiggering of the Universal Services Fund a historic milestone, and it was heartening to see many Republicans acknowledge — some publicly, some tacitly — that a levy on phone service is a practical and pragmatic means of achieving universal broadband coverage.

So why doesn't that same thinking apply to healthcare?

"The philosophical basis is the same," said Art Brodsky, a spokesman for the digital rights group Public Knowledge. "Everyone should be covered and everyone should have to pay for it."

Yet many Republicans don't see it that way. Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) recently joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers voicing support for the FCC's vote on the Universal Services Fund.

But each of these Republican senators is also on record as opposing the healthcare reform law championed by President Obama. As Hatch put it, "I think to allow it to be even partially implemented is a mistake. We should repeal it."

I called the Washington office of each lawmaker to ask about the seeming contradiction. Not one called me back.

I can see why. Brodsky at Public Knowledge said it's hard to distinguish between the case for universal healthcare coverage and universal phone coverage.

"Many of these guys who scream about socialized medicine represent largely rural states, and without these subsidies, there wouldn't be universal phone and broadband service," he said. "Basically, the phone subsidies are a form of corporate socialism."

It's all about serving the interests of the greater good. In the case of telecom, every phone customer ponies up $2 or $3 a month to ensure that each of their fellow citizens has equal access to phone and Internet services.

After all, why should anyone be deprived the benefits of our state-of-the-art telecom system? It's un-American to even consider such a notion.

The public cost of universal health coverage would run significantly more than a few bucks a month. But when it comes to mandates, the principle is the same: spreading the risks and expenses evenly among all members of society.

Conservatives grow bug-eyed at the thought of such a thing. They say that healthcare is a privilege, not a right, and that no one can be forced to pay for insurance.

It's a ludicrous distinction. Either the government is tasked with ensuring fairness and equality in society, or it isn't.

A public-sector commitment to all people having access to equitable and affordable medical treatment is no different from the public sector making sure that all people have access to an equitable and affordable education.

The marketplace has its merits. But I don't see anyone arguing that we should close down public schools just because there are private schools as well.

Similarly, it's not as though people can duck paying taxes for public education just because they don't have kids. It's a responsibility we all share.

The FCC, in refocusing the Universal Services Fund, is attempting to compensate for the shortcomings of the marketplace. Telecom companies find it too expensive to extend service to rural areas, so the rest of us, under the auspices of a government program, step in to guarantee that no one is left out.

A health insurance mandate achieves the same goal, compensating for insurers' fears that people would otherwise wait until they get sick before obtaining coverage.

Similarly, a Medicare-for-all program would make sure no one slips through the cracks. As it stands, the healthcare reform law would extend coverage to an additional 30 million people. That would still leave about 20 million more out in the cold.

Roughly 100 million people in this country now lack broadband Internet access, and Republicans and Democrats agree that this is unacceptable.

Half that number lack health insurance. And we can't forge a consensus on doing something about that as well?

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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