DemocracyLetters

If You Get Sick in Utah

Don't Call Representative Jason Chaffetz

Conservatives have been complaining for years that liberals don’t care about their ideas: if this is true, it becomes a problem for liberals and the left too. Why? Because by simply ignoring or mocking conservative proposals, by not following them through to their logical conclusion, we fail to understand the implications that these ideas have for ordinary people’s lives. Sure, social media sarcasm is a satisfying way of dealing with the shit-show in Washington, but what would it look like to cut the clowning and seriously engage with conservative ideas?

For example: let’s take Representative Jason Chaffetz’s (R-Utah) ideas seriously. Chaffetz suggested to his constituents last week that, should they feel unable to afford medical care under the new Trumpcare legislation being floated by the GOP, they could cancel their cell phone plans and buy health insurance instead. Did Chaffetz actually mean to say that the people who voted him into office could either have communication or health insurance, but not both? Unclear. Today the (failing! Fake news!) New York Times followed up with a story about how working people, such as the hard-working blue collar folk in Chaffetz’s mostly Mormon district, actually use their smart phones just like most of Congress does: to keep in touch with their families throughout the day, get their work done, and look things up that they need to know.

“A cellphone is a lifeline,” said Myla Dutton, executive director of Community Action Provo, a food bank and social service nonprofit.

Jose Valdivia, 61, said he wouldn’t be able to quickly look up the latest engine modifications when he was repairing sport-utility vehicles at the mechanic’s shop where he works. His wife said they wouldn’t be able to send photos to relatives in Mexico City.

The couple spoke as they waited for an appointment at a free health clinic run by volunteer nurses and doctors two nights a week in Provo. Not surprisingly, smartphones abounded in the waiting room. People texted about dinner, called relatives with updates, held their children’s attention with a game.

When I read this on my iPad with my morning coffee, something I hadn’t thought about in years popped into my head: the evening back in the 1980s when I was snookered into going to an Erhard Seminars Training (EST) introduction, and got trapped in a room with a bunch of devotees who were pressuring me to invest several hundred dollars in my own personal growth. When I explained to them that I was in graduate school and could barely pay my bills, one said: “Do you have a television?” Why yes I did, a tiny little white plastic thing with an antenna that I had purchased at a drug store. “Sell it,” my EST trainer said firmly. “People who say they have no money always have money for a television. This is a choice you are making.”

But I digress: I told you I was going to take Representative Chaffetz’s ideas seriously. So let’s say I lost my job, and my decent, although not lavish, health insurance package went away. And let’s say I decided to cancel my cell phone plan, and communicate on landlines entirely. What would be the economic outcome for me?

Now, let me pause at this point to talk about an important consequence of the government having deregulated telecommunications. I used to pay AT&T 196.00 a month for two lines and a hot spot. When I called to cancel the hot spot, I learned that whatever deal I had had in the past (my charges had bounced sky-high with the advent of the iPhone6) no longer existed. I could now get the same services for $126.00 a month, including taxes and fees. When I asked the nice lady in billing why AT&T had not automatically lowered my bill when their prices changed, she told me that by law, it is up to the customer to keep track of price changes. Because market freedom’s just another phrase for nothing left to lose, the company could legally overcharge me $74.00 a month extra until I told them to stop. This has something to do, perhaps, with what Jason Chaffetz is trying to encourage in his constituents: personal responsibility. In the case of me and the phone company, this meant that I had sole responsibility for keeping up with AT&T’s price changes on a regular basis to make sure I was paying the right amount — even though, by law, they can charge me for breaking my contract and going to another company that charges less and will also make me (for a small fee) change out my device for one that works on their system. And if ya don’t like it, there’s no law that says ya hafta have phone service!!!

Having learned the lesson of personal responsibility, I called AT&T back three months after this eureka moment, and found that the price of my package had once again been lowered without my knowledge, this time to $101.26, which is what I now pay (at this rate, by sometime in 2018 AT&T will be paying me to use my phone.) OK — but what about that lavish new iPhone6 I bought last January to the tune of around $600 ($175 less than Jason Chaffetz paid, according to this report), a device which would have cost more had I not traded in my old one for recycling? If you add all the monthly charges I currently pay to the cost of that phone, the bill comes to roughly $1800 a year.

What kind of a health care plan could I get for $1800?

The answer is: no health plan. Not even close. The lowest cost of a New York State health plan this year is $367.00 per month, or $4,404 per year, and this is prior to any GOP legislation that will, everyone agrees, raise the cost of health insurance even further. Of course, it’s hard to tell how much, because like one’s cell phone bill, “costs may vary,” as they say on the teevee (they may vary a lot if you are a woman of reproductive age.) Were I to end my relationship with AT&T altogether, I would still have to come up with $2600 and change in order to have basic health insurance.

This begs the question: what kind of a health plan could I get in Utah? In Utah, a Bronze, or lowest level, level plan costs 450.00 a month, or $5,400. Subtract the savings for not having a cell phone and that is $3,600. But you might want to be super-personally responsible and start canceling and selling other services, because the deductible is $7100, and a true measure of your personal responsibility would be to have that money in a Health Savings Account in case you should ever get sick.

Verdict? Jason Chaffetz’s idea is not as thoughtful as it might initially seem!

Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School and the Executive Editor at Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter @TenuredRadical.

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