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Column: Health plan debate makes for background noise

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INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence and Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, said some nice things the other day about political opponents as the governor announced he’d struck a deal with federal officials to continue the Healthy Indiana Plan.

But then they went back to disagreeing about health care and, in the process, demonstrated just how deep the divide in this country is on the subject.

Let’s acknowledge the pleasantries first.


Pence said that he appreciated the “good faith” the Obama administration had shown in negotiating with him and his team in regard to extending HIP, the state’s health insurance plan for low-income adults.

For his part, Pelath called the governor a “good man” who had done some good things.

But the importance of being polite was about the only thing upon which the two men agreed. Everything else in regard to health care in America and in Indiana, it seemed, was up for dispute.

Pence, for example, called the deal to extend HIP a victory for “consumer-driven” health care.

Pelath called it “an abdication of responsibility for the middle class.”

Pence labeled HIP “an unqualified success” that had a 95 percent approval rating among the people it served.

Pelath said HIP, which he acknowledged he had voted for, had become a “vanity project” and said that the program couldn’t begin to serve the needs of the many Hoosiers who still need health insurance.

The two men couldn’t even agree on the number of people in the state who still would need help.

Pence said that HIP would cover about 40,000 Hoosiers and the federal exchange program would take care of another 500,000, but he acknowledged that would leave at least 300,000 people in the state without health insurance. He argued, though, that no Hoosier need go without health care because they could continue to go to the emergency room or rely on charity care.

Pelath said that the number of uncovered Hoosiers would be 400,000. And he was scornful of the governor’s plan to have those Hoosiers rely on emergency rooms and charity care, saying that was the least efficient and most costly way to deliver and pay for health care.

“Everyone forgets that we can’t afford the health care system we have now,” Pelath said.

And he added that the governor’s decision to reject federal support for expanding health insurance options meant that Hoosiers actually were paying taxes to increase health care coverage in surrounding states while not getting the benefits themselves.

Pelath probably got the better of the exchange, but scoring debating points isn’t bringing us any closer to a resolution of this vexing and divisive issue. That may be because the two sides focus most of their attention, perfunctory pleasantries aside, on talking at each other rather than with each other.

Neither side even wants to hear, much less acknowledge, what the other party’s concerns might be.

Pelath, for his part, was dismissive of the concerns conservatives have about the costs of expanding health insurance coverage. He fired away at the costs of the current system and pointed out that Hoosiers would be sending away tax dollars to the federal government while getting nothing in return for them.

Those were fair points, but they didn’t speak to the concern on the other side at all.

And, while Pence scored some points discussing the importance of fiscal restraint and personal responsibility, he didn’t do much to acknowledge the concerns many have about the number of uninsured Hoosiers. When he was asked at the HIP news conference about what he would say to Hoosiers who would see their health care costs go up because of the large number of the state’s citizens who would have to continue to rely on inefficient and costly emergency room care, Pence didn’t have an answer.

After the news conference, I asked Pence more pointedly what he would say to the 300,000 to 400,000 Hoosiers who still would be left out in the cold.

The governor started to deliver another tribute to the virtues of HIP but then caught himself. He said that he and his team were working on it.

“We’re going to continue talking about it,” Pence said.

Unless listening on both sides of the conversation becomes part of the process, it’s hard to see what good continued talking will do.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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