Why Health Reform Wouldn’t Have Killed Sen. Ron Johnson’s Daughter

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal suggesting that his daughter Carey may have died from a heart condition were she treated under the Affordable Care Act. The piece reads like a hit piece from the summer of 2009, when Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) was suggesting that the Affordable Care Act would pull the plug on grandma and Reps. Steve King (R-IA), Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Virginia Foxx (R-NC) were arguing that reform would literally kill Americans.

A year out, these kinds of arguments sound absurd, and so Johnson is now touting what TPM’s Brian Beutler calls a “retroactive twist on the ‘death panels’ hoax.” From Johnson’s op-ed:

I don’t even want to think what might have happened if she had been born at a time and place where government defined the limits for most insurance policies and set precedents on what would be covered. Would the life-saving procedures that saved her have been deemed cost-effective by policy makers deciding where to spend increasingly scarce tax dollars? […]

Take cancer as one example. Compared to the U.S., breast cancer mortality is 9% higher in Canada (according to the government statistics of each country), 52% higher in Germany and 88% higher in the United Kingdom (according to studies published in Lancet Oncology). Prostate cancer mortality is 604% higher in Britain. […]

The plain truth is that the American system is better at rewarding innovation and responding to consumer needs. But the history of government-led care is there for all to see. Are we doomed to repeat it?

Beutler correctly points out that the ‘government will death panel Americans’ meme has by now been thoroughly debunked — the “limits for most insurance companies” that Johnson is referring to are actually coverage minimums that states can expand upon — and notes that Carey or a child in her position could have benefited from the law’s new regulations that already prohibit insurers from discriminating against children with pre-existing conditions and eliminated lifetime and annual caps that often leave families with thousands in medical bills. Had her parents not received employer-based coverage, she could have found insurance in the temporary high-risk insurance pools that 12,400 Americans are now enrolled in and in 2014, her parents could buy a comprehensive family plan through a state-based exchange.


Johnson’s indictment of universal health systems around the world is equally pernicious. The United States does boast some of the best acute care in the world, but as Jonathan Cohn points out, “it’s hard to read the data as indictment of universal health care when the U.S. survival rate on other ailments isn’t so superior.” For example, “The Swedes are more likely than Americans to survive a diagnosis of cervical, ovarian, or skin cancer; the French are more likely to survive stomach cancer, Hodgkins disease, and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Aussies, Brits, and Canadians do better on liver and kidney transplants.”

Countries with universal care also have better quality, access, efficiency, equity, and live healthier lives. And while health spending in the United States increased at more than twice the rate of countries like Canada, Australia, Italy, U.K., Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Japan, America 50th out of 223 nations in life expectancy, with an average life span of 78.37 years, according to estimates from the CIA World Factbook. The United States is also “ranked 29th in the world in infant mortality, tied with Poland and Slovakia.” And so, Johnson gets it wrong. The ACA wouldn’t have killed Johnson’s daughter, but thousands of other uninsured babies would have died without it.