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Opinion

Joy to the world

SoVaNow.com / August 14, 2014
Every so often, a thing happens that takes you back to a long-lost place and you’re left to wonder how your memory of it ever lapsed. This week it was the weird feeling of recalling a young Robin Williams in concert — a show I saw back in college, a different lifetime as it were. The only description I can muster of the experience is that Williams was as wildly funny on stage as you would expect. Reading the tributes this week in the wake of his death, it’s striking how no one even attempts to capture the machine-gun ferocity of his humor. You might as well deign to offer play-by-play commentary on a bag of cats.

I was a junior when Williams visited campus on his stand-up comedy tour. His impending arrival was a source of much excitement. We were a bunch of college kids who had come up with “Mork & Mindy,” the ABC television show that turned Williams into a star, playing an alien from outer space who habituated an apartment with a ‘70s single chick. Looking back at “Mork,” what’s truly preposterous is not the premise — sillier shows have lasted longer on the small screen — but the idea that an intergalactic visitor who unleashes a crazily inventive brand of comedy on earthlings would be any less plausible than Robin Williams himself. There are other performers I’d rate higher — no one will ever, ever hold a candle to Richard Pryor in my book — but none have ever been any more imaginative.

(I can honestly say, as if it matters, that I missed out on a chance to interview the great man in person by something less than a country mile. Our campus newspaper published an interview with Williams on the week of his October 1982 show, and I actually looked back this week to see if I could find the piece online — and yes, there it was, in a Princeton archive. Being a newspaper alum, my memory on one point proved to be correct: The senior arts writers insisted on hogging the story for themselves. However, I also remember that several other editors and reporters listened in on the conversation and they were floored by how Williams could get laughs out of practically anything. My favorite bit was how he was preparing for the show by reading “20,000 Ivy Leagues Under The Sea.” I went to the concert hoping he’d riff some more on the theme, but it never came up again. There are times when you can’t help but to wonder if Robin Williams ever told the same joke twice.)

What a tremendous loss his death is. It’s no surprise Williams’ suicide has weighed on people’s moods this week in a way that few news stories ever do. He brought the world immense joy that seems to have eluded him personally, and it’s always hard to understand how such a personal and social disconnect could be. Watching Williams perform, it was as if he carried a thousand joke-writers around in his brain, and his genius rested in all of them trying to break out at the same time. Yet who really knows what goes on inside someone else’s head. May he rest in peace.

***

Random observations from the week that was:

The Virginia Pilot ran a story this week on the number of lawyers representing Bob McDonnell (15) and Maureen McDonnell (5) in their public corruption trial currently under way in Richmond. How the McDonnells expect to pay for this bounty of legal talent is a question no one seems able to answer, but obviously such considerations haven’t stopped Virginia’s former First Couple before.

Perhaps the better subject to ponder, though, is what all this money has gotten the McDonnells. An epically crummy defense? Seriously, whoever thought up the argument that because Bob and Maureen were barely speaking to each other, they couldn’t possibly have formed a joint venture to sell out their integrity to the highest bidder needs to be strapped to the sofa and forced to watch “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” or similar such trash. Because how else could we possibly know about such things in Virginia?


It was gratifying to see the Danville Register & Bee do a follow-up report on a political stunt that slipped past our sights earlier this month — the purported listening tour by state Sen. Bill Stanley to discuss Virginia’s health insurance “coverage gap” with medical providers in Danville, Martinsville and other parts of his district. (Sen. Stanley also represents the western half of Halifax County.) The Register & Bee dutifully reported Stanley’s Aug. 4 swing through Danville and Pittsylvania, in which the Franklin County senator proclaimed it was his “passion” to find ways to help low-income Virginians who have been denied health coverage as a result of the General Assembly’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. By Stanley’s definition of the word, I suppose I have a “passion” for stamp collecting because of all the bills I receive through the mail each month.

From the initial media coverage, it might be easy to miss the colossal phoniness of Bill Stanley on this issue. The tour mostly seemed to feature Stanley doing all the talking and not much of the listening. And the Republican senator is smart about this stuff in his inimitably slick way, saying just enough to impress the rubes who don’t understand the particulars of Medicaid expansion and don’t much care to learn. Unfortunately for the senator, the health care providers he met with are not rubes. Of course they were going to listen politely to what he had to say, but to actually buy it? Nuh-uh.

Here’s what Kay Crane, CEO of Piedmont Access To Health Care, Inc. (PATHS), had to say about Stanley in the Register & Bee’s Aug. 10 follow-up piece: “He’s got to do more than come up with a plan. We need action.” Well put indeed. (The newspaper article also stated that Crane believes Medicaid expansion is a “no-brainer,” although that’s a paraphrase, not a direct quote.) Bill Stanley may be good at serving up the usual mumbo-jumbo on the subject of health care — if it’s Monday, a Republican somewhere is giving a speech on expanding insurance markets across state lines — but he’s offered nothing of consequence to help people in Virginia who can’t afford to see the doctor despite the help available under the Affordable Care Act.

(The Danville paper’s Aug. 4 story on Stanley’s swing through the area included this regrettable assertion: “The Affordable Care Act does not provide coverage to American citizens whose income is below the poverty level.” This is incorrect. The ACA, better known as Obamacare, specifically envisioned that people who earn under 138 percent of the poverty level — $16,105 for individuals, $32,913 for a family of four — would gain coverage through the expansion of Medicaid. In states that have fully implemented the law, the ranks of uninsured citizens have fallen dramatically. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled that states could opt out of Medicaid expansion, and about half, including Virginia, have chosen to do so.)

The “coverage gap” refers to people who make too little to qualify for Obamacare subsidies to buy individual insurance coverage, but make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid. (In Virginia, you can’t even enroll in the program if you are a childless, non-disabled adult). Bottom line: The law was always intended to help low- and middle-income Americans who don’t receive health insurance through their employers, which includes thousands of families in Bill Stanley’s legislative district. What no one foresaw is that the Republican Party, here in Virginia and elsewhere, would go to such lengths to block people from enjoying the benefits.

At any rate, a hearty “thank you” goes out to Southside health care providers who continue to speak clearly about the stakes involved with Medicaid expansion. To be clear, a sizeable number of Republicans have come around to the view that Virginia should press ahead with expansion; in fact, it was three GOP state senators who drew up “Marketplace Virginia,” a market-flavored version of Medicaid expansion. (Under the proposal, Virginia would accept federal funding for the expansion and use it to purchase private insurance policies for low-income citizens, with the usual array of deductibles and co-pays kept in place, scaled appropriately according to income levels.)

If Bill Stanley were really “passionate” about closing the coverage gap, he would be willing to acknowledge these facts and get behind legislation that has been offered by members of his own party. Instead he’s a big phony, plain and simple. If you’re looking for a starting point to understand the Medicaid debate that’s going on in Richmond, start there.







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