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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As the debate over health care rages, commentator Brian Unger says the back and forth is getting toxic. It's revealing a lot about us as a nation and not the good stuff.

BRIAN UNGER: It feels embarrassing, like the whole world can see our underpants or hear us fighting in the kitchen. First, most of us can't describe accurately the details of the health care reform now under debate. That makes us look stupid or too busy to care. Second, most of us can't describe accurately the health care or insurance we currently have. So that makes us look kind of stupid, too, or lazy. Some of us don't care about people who don't have health insurance. So that makes us seem unsympathetic or super lucky. Most of us don't understand that we're already paying for people who don't have health care, which makes us too busy to care, in denial or merely rich. Some of us, a lot of us, already receive health care under some form of government plan, but don't believe in health care under some form of government plan. That makes us hypocritical or selfish. In some camps, I hear that makes us patriotic.

We're having an identity crisis when it comes to caring about the nation's health, which makes me think what we really need is psychotherapy. But sadly, that's not covered under most health plans, if you have one at all.

To many, health care reform is scary, like someone's building a halfway house for criminals right at their doorstep. It's a NIMBY, a not-in-my-backyard issue evolved into a NOMBO, a not-on-my-back, Obama issue. People never change, but policy can. So our health care reformers must get more creative and visionary. How about a Cash for Clunkers Program? Not for cars, but for older, beat-up people whose bodies have wear and tear and can't go long distances when they're filled with gas?

Our government is offering us $4,500 to buy a new car. Can it offer humans incentives - a tax break to join a gym, to quit smoking, or to buy produce from local farmers, reward schools that teach kids how to eat right and exercise? You know, kind of like that class we used to offer kids called gym. Let's pay people to stay healthy instead of only paying for them when they get sick. Then maybe our nation will find the antidote for its health care identity crisis: compassion.

BLOCK: Brian Unger is a writer in Los Angeles. And you can comment on his essay at the opinion section of the new npr.org.

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