Healthcare Hero

By Heather Aveson

Jonathan Gruber“Holy Health Care Batman! It’s Jonathan Gruber and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act!” OK, it doesn’t have quite the punch of the Dynamic Duo’s usual comic book repartee. But, mild mannered economist Jonathan Gruber has used his amazing powers to create a Health Reform comic book that seeks truth and justice for the new program.

It’s called, Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It’s Necessary, How It Works. “Education was my main interest in doing the book. My job is to explain, not convince. I just want to get readers educated. There’s a substantial upward inclination when people understand what it really is,” says Gruber.

And that’s no easy task when you’re talking about a 1,900 page government document. That’s the amazing part of Gruber’s super hero powers – his ability to distill the main points down to a 150 comic book complete with two headed crocodiles, health care Goliaths and yes, a glasses wearing, tie toting Gruber as narrator. How did he prioritize which elements to include in such a minimalist tome? Gruber wasn’t overwhelmed by the task. “When I sat down to write the book I had already been giving speeches on the subject for years. It was really a matter of finally writing down my thoughts.”

Jonathan Gruber is an Economics Professor at MIT and has been involved in health care economics for decades so he’d already done a lot of thinking on the subject. He was one of the chief architects of the Massachusetts health care reform law, officially titled ‘An Act Providing Access to Affordable, Quality,

Accountable Health Care’, signed by Governor Mitt Romney in 2006. He was also tapped by the Obama administration and congress to advise them on the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’ signed by President Obama in 2010. Between being a sought after speaker on and proponent of healthcare reform, Dr. Gruber faces many audiences. He says they tend to fall into three categories – those who are favorably inclined, those on the right who think it represents increased government intrusion, and those on the left who wanted the bill to go further. “What I’m able to do is discuss it without getting defensive or angry. I just want to get them educated,” he explains, “The two biggest misconceptions about the plan are that it creates more government intrusion, that it’s socialized medicine. But it actually expands the private health insurance industry. The second problem is not understanding why we need the mandate. The mandate makes the whole thing work, it doesn’t affect most people and there’s an exemption for those who just can’t afford it.” Don’t count Gruber among those who think the act didn’t go far enough. He’s pleased by how much they were able to include. The professor in him says, “If I had to grade the act, I’d give it a 90% for coverage and 130% for cost control.

It went way further than we thought possible.” That doesn’t mean he considers it perfect. But as the comic book points out, “you have to walk before you can run.” Here in Massachusetts we’re already way out ahead in Health Care Reform. Since the Federal act is built on the Massachusetts reform foundation most of the federal reform elements are already in place here, including the mandate and the health insurance exchange. All states are required to have exchanges by 2014. So what will be the affect of the Federal Act on us here? According to Gruber, not much as far as health care goes. What we will see is a financial uptick. “This bill is a financial windfall for Massachusetts thanks to John Kerry’s hard work,” says Gruber. When Massachusetts passed health care reform half the cost was paid for by the state.

The federal government paid the other half. Under the new plan the federal government will pick up the entire bill. That means Massachusetts will have more money available. “The big question is: How do we use that money?” Gruber says the state has choices, “The low income state programs are more generous than those in the federal plan. Do we continue to fund better coverage for low income people or do we use the money in other places?” For Gruber it’s not just a hypothetical question. He’s on the board of ‘The Health Connector’ here in Massachusetts, which oversees implementation of the reforms. It’s a question they’ll have to answer in conjunction with the legislature as the federal is implemented over the next few years.

For now mild mannered economist Jonathan Gruber continues his fight for truth and justice when it comes to the Health Care Reform Act. He’s on the road with his comic book entertaining and educating audiences. He makes no apologies for the enthusiasm cartoon Jonathan Gruber expresses in the comic book. “This is a book with an opinion. But it’s an opinion based in fact, not in polemics.” That kind of fact-based enthusiasm could help a lot of us understand say, the Federal Budget. Would Gruber ever consider doing a comic book based on the budget? Well, probably not the budget. “I think what makes it work is the timing. It’s such a lively debate right now. Maybe it’s a format that works for other programs as well – maybe Medicare or Social Security,” he considers.

Jonathan Gruber on his book:
Health Care Reform: What It is, Why It’s Necessary, How It Works

Cary Library, Wednesday, February 15 at 7pm. The event is free


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