New Book Examines Healthcare Reform Through Cartoonists’ Eyes

Healthcare reform has been a gleeful topic for editorial cartoonists since Roosevelt.

The debate over the role of government in healthcare has produced some serious fun for the nation's cartoonists. (Art: "The Quest for Health Care Reform: A Satirical History," American Public Health Assn.)

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

The question of how to provide access to healthcare for all of the nation's citizens, from rich to poor, has stumped presidents for decades, divided American citizens and—thankfully—provided some great fodder for the nation's editorial cartoonists.

Having a sense of humor about a vexing issue is the subject of the new book, The Quest for Health Care Reform: A Satirical History, published by the American Public Health Assn. The 212-page book features the works of more than 27 cartoonists, including 10 Pulitzer-Prize winners. Almost a fifth of the selections are the creation of Matt Wuerker, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning and a finalist for the award in 2010 and 2009.

The cartoons depict a country that has been mired in a debate about government's role in healthcare for a century, Theodore Brown, a co-author of the book and a historian of medicine, public health, and health policy at the University of Rochester, told Take Part. Cartoonist Clay Bennett, of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, who wrote the book's forward, says his colleagues capture the essence of a serious issue and still locate the absurdity in it.

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"He said what political cartoonists do is reflect reality—but it's not reality as in your standard mirror; it's in a carnival fun-house mirror," Brown says. "It makes us see things in a perspective that we hadn't thought of before but makes us laugh at the same time."

The idea for the book came from APHA executive director Georges Benjamin, who has a collection of almost 1,000 cartoons on healthcare. Brown had a collection of more than 100 cartoons that were more historical in nature. The result is a book that tells the story of healthcare reform in the United States over the past century.

The book chronicles the issue from the days when Theodore Roosevelt supported for protection from the "hazards of sickness" in 1912 to the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act in 2012. Clear themes emerge from the cartoons, Brown says.

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In the early 20th century, opponents of universal healthcare called the idea "socialistic," and even "Germanic," charges that echo the criticism of  Obamacare as socialist medicine. As far back as the 1920s, the idea of universal healthcare was derisively branded "state medicine" that would turn medicine into an assembly line and patients into customers.

The "death panels" charge by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2009 produced a lot of cartoon fodder by carrying fear-mongering into the present era.

"There is a continuity of distortion that goes back a century," Brown says. "Very early on, in the 1900s, the trend was to label [healthcare reform] as socialist or nazi-istic," Brown says. "Those terms carry on through 1910-1919 to the [current time]. These are terms that create fear and trembling."

The many players in the healthcare debate emerge throughout the book—politicians, insurers, doctors, lobbyists, Big Pharma and patients. American consumers take a beating in many cartoons, appearing as victimized and easily flustered by the political debate on healthcare that swirls around them.

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"The public looks duped and manipulated," Brown says. "That is pretty consistent."

Brown says he has long used political cartoons as hand-outs in his classes to provoke thought and help students see another perspective. Politicians might do well to share a few favorite cartoons with each other before sitting down for a round of negotiations, he says.

"What I think is the genius of political cartooning in political discussions is when you see them—even though you may be on one side or another of a bitterly polarized debate—you'll smile," he says. "If you can just make someone smile or inject some well-placed or well-timed humor, you can enormously reduce the tension. The cartoon says lighten up. That does so much to benefit human interaction and political discussion."

Cartoons that have impact are those that will make almost everyone who views them feel a bit silly or sheepish.

"When you look at a political cartoon you can almost see the arch in the cartoonist's eyebrow and the twinkle in his or her eye," he says.

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The passage of the Affordable Care Act may seem like a fitting end to a century's worth of cartooning. But Brown says artists have their pens poised for more jesting. If Gov. Mitt Romney is elected today, he has vowed to repeal Obamacare beginning on his first day in office. And, if President Barack Obama is re-elected, there are still many healthcare battles on the horizon, Brown notes, such as the states' right to opt out of Medicaid that was supported by the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act.

Brown, who says he thinks the Affordable Care Act does not go far enough to increase access to healthcare for all Americans, predicts a continued, fervent debate—perhaps material for a second book of political cartoons on healthcare someday.

"The battles will be there again," he says. "In fact, we end the book with a quote from my favorite political pundit, Yogi Berra, who says, " 'It ain't over 'til it's over.' "

Question: Is the country's long battle with healthcare reform finally over? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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