Wise words, sadly earned, by Senator Mark Kirk

I won’t vote for Senator Mark Kirk. But his simple words today command respect.

I published something today about the sad demise of the the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act (CLASS). CLASS was a component of health reform designed to help people who live with a variety of disabilities live more independently and (whenever possible) to stay in their homes. It’s a brilliant article. I hope that you read it.

Then, by chance I encountered a Sun-Times interview today with Illinois’ Republican Senator Mark Kirk. About a year ago, Kirk suffered a stroke. He’s been slowly and courageously recuperating ever since. He suffers from paralysis on the left side of his body. He has difficulties with the left side of his face.

In describing his ordeal and his recovery, Kirk noted the following:

“I will look much more carefully at the Illinois Medicaid program to see how my fellow citizens are being cared for who have no income and if they suffer from a stroke,” Kirk said.

He said in general a person on Medicaid would be allowed 11 rehab visits in Illinois. “Had I been limited to that I would have had no chance to recover like I did. So unlike before suffering the stroke, I’m much more focused on Medicaid and what my fellow citizens face.” [italics added.]

The simple truth in these comments commands respect. Kirk required aggressive rehabilitation services at one of America’s finest facilities for patients recovering from stroke. Such a profound physical ordeal–and one’s accompanying sense of profound privilege in securing more help than so many other people routinely receive—this changes a person.

Politicians and policy analysts often speak in the abstract about difficult tradeoffs and the need to trim waste in programs such as Medicaid. I’ve expressed contempt for conservatives who conduct such conversations at such very great personal distance from the people intimately affected by service cuts in essential programs. Of course, we liberals conduct many of these same conversations at the same psychological distance, too.

Caring for my brother-in-law Vincent has certainly changed my perspective. Whatever the issues are, they aren’t about some group of faceless other people anymore.

Vincent, intellectually disabled since birth, has not physically suffered in the way Senator Kirk has. He does face other challenges. Vincent is, officially, a pauper. He swipes his food assistance and his Social Security over to the group home that provides for his daily needs.

He is entitled to keep $50 per month for personal discretionary spending. That’s not a lot. It’s expected to cover every shirt, McDonald’s hamburger, or ESPN magazine. That $50 is even less now. Vincent requires podiatry care for a complicated toe problem that has already required multiple hospitalizations. Illinois Medicaid no longer pays the $17/month he requires for this care. Illinois has dropped adult dental coverage—another punishing blow for too many people.

Vincent has us to help him address these difficulties. Many of his friends and housemates aren’t so lucky. They’ve outlived their primary caregivers, or they’ve outlived these relationships. For some, their closest contact with a living relative is a birthday card and maybe a Christmas dinner.

I wish Senator Kirk all the best in his return to work this week. I should mention that I didn’t vote for him. Indeed, I walked door-to-door for his Democratic opponent. I will do so again.

Yet as Washington gets down to brass tacks in negotiating budgets and social policy, I’m glad that Senator Kirk will be there. I hope his personal experiences will help him temper his party’s tough positions on Medicaid and so many other things. He has special reason to know better.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

14 thoughts on “Wise words, sadly earned, by Senator Mark Kirk”

  1. It is a terrible shame that it requires something like a stroke to force Senator Kirk’s attention on the plight of those less fortunate than he. I suppose we should be grateful that it did serve to force his attention on their plight. But it is not apparent that Senator Kirk’s generalized from his experience.

    What is it about conservatives (and Republicans in particular) that causes them to have a complete failure of empathy?

    1. I agree. Their insurance ought to be whatever Medicaid is in their states. At least that’s all we the taxpayer should pay for. Anything else they can pay for it themselves.

      1. I don’t know, but at this point it seems like some kind of law: Conservatives have stunningly little empathy until they or someone they know experiences misfortune. From Dick Cheney’s gay daughter to McCain’s experience with torture to NE Republicans offended by their party’s lack of support for hurricane victims, the pattern is relentless.

  2. I’m sorry to say I don’t agree. That people with a certain frame of reference must suffer greatly themselves before being able to understand their responsibilities towards their fellow human beings is at best a terrible lack of imagination and empathy and at worst a serious character defect.

    When President Clinton was trying to enact universal health insurance in the mid-90s, I had an interesting conversation with the guy who lived across the street from me. Really nice guy in our interactions. I said, I felt we had a responsibility towards our fellow citizens to make this happen. He said, no, they were responsible for themselves. So then I asked, what about children? By definition, they’re not responsible for themselves. He thought a moment, and then said, no, they weren’t our joint responsibility.

    At that moment I realized that he simply couldn’t conceive of a world in which those might be his children.

    And Senator Kirk simply couldn’t conceive of a world in which that might be him. Until it was. I don’t think that makes him brave at all. It makes him a Republican.

    1. Larry,

      That man you had that conversation with has the same lack of empathy that others have. But, I feel that if the same situation would happen to him OR his children, (not that I wish it upon ANYONE) then perhaps he WOULD understand. It’s that same ol’ story that the writer was talking about where they don’t have the compassion “until it happens to them or their own”. Sometimes too, they just don’t want to admit it openly when confronted in a conversation. They would rather believe they are sticking to their “beliefs and rights.” I have encountered all kinds in my daily life, people I never thought would n’er say a bad word about those that have little in life. But especially online, they do so with such frequency it makes my head spin. And it’s not like they are doing so anonymously, they are doing so with their real names…some very famous, some not, many in high office, many in the media. Most unapologetically. I have lost friends over this. I am vocal, I don’t pretend, I don’t hide who I am, but I do not speak in a way that disrespects anyone. That’s all I can do as an individual, and I try encourage others to do the same. And as far as Senator Kirk, maybe he’s not brave for finally realizing that people on medicaid have it rough, (that doesn’t take a genius) but a late convert is better than him not ever having seen the light.

  3. I’ve heard variations of this story before, though it seems to me that it’s usually a member of the Republican Representative’s immediate family who has one medical condition or another that for some reason or another, they can’t get sufficient help for. All of a sudden, the Representative is (uncharacteristically)proposing safety-net type legislation to help everyone with that ONE condition.

    There is a master list waiting to be compiled of Republicans made advocates only AFTER they have direct, personal experience with an issue. Maybe we can start the list right now, with Senator Kirk at the head.

    The one other example that I can immediately bring to mind is Dan Burton from Indiana. He has a grandchild with autism, so he’s interested in autism. Now his interest is misdirected, he’s rabidly anti-vaccine but it is still directly inspired by his family’s experience.

    1. National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser supports medical marijuana, due to his experience with testicular cancer in 1992.

  4. I’m going to agree with everyone else in saying that I don’t find much to respect here. Another timely (although off the medical topic) example is the Hurricane Sandy relief bill. A natural disaster strikes home and Chris Christie and Peter King are suddenly shocked – SHOCKED, I SAY! – by the priorities of their fellow Republicans.

    Jon Stewart did a pretty good segment on this with regard to Megyn Kelly’s passionate defense of maternity leave:


    “This is the problem with entitlements, they’re really only entitlements when they’re something other people want. When it’s something you want, they’re a hallmark of a civilized society, foundation of a great people. I just had a baby and found out maternity leave strengthens society. But since I still have a job, unemployment benefits are clearly socialism.”

    1. The neologism is great but in case anyone is debating clicking through, definitely go for it. That was basically the perfect post on this subject.

  5. Perfect illustration that a conservative is a liberal who hasn’t been mugged by reality.

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