Friday, April 10, 2009

Does the nation need a clear policy on a right to basic health care?

At a recent conference, I was asked to be a “thought provocateur” (!!) on the topic “The nation needs a clear policy on the basic right to health care".

This is an interesting question, since my first reaction is: “Of course, we need a clear policy on the basic right to health care! I mean, I have a pretty clear idea of what that policy should be, but certainly even those who would disagree with me would agree that we need a policy!”

But, on reflection, I don’t know that they do. I think that a great deal of the perseverance of our “non-system” of health care has been a result of a consensus among our leaders to NOT talk about this issue, to NOT grapple with it, to not have to take a position one way or another on whether health care is a basic right.

This is because, if one does take a position, there are implications, and things that we would then have to do.

If health care is a basic right, then we need to provide it to everyone. We can no longer diddle around with partial fixes, tinkering around the edges, covering (maybe) children but not their parents, covering people who are poor – as long as they are children and their mothers and are really poor and not working – but not those who are poor, or nearly-poor, depending on which state you are in. Or, for that matter, working-class, or, in increasing numbers, middle class.
But the problem is most people in power, including most politicians including the President, don’t want to have to take a position against health care being a basic right. It sounds, well, mean. There aren’t many people, except, well, mean people (and maybe some reactionary ideologues), who are willing to defend this position.

So we have shows such as “Sick Around America”, the Frontline “sequel” to T.R. Reid’s “Sick Around the World” (which Reid disassociated himself from). It interviewed insurance company executives who said “sure we can insure everyone”. If we make it mandatory and can make a profit everyone. Hmm. The cost would be ridiculous. And the option of single payer was never mentioned. There is a lot more that has to be decided if we agree that health care is a basic right, like how to provide it, how to pay for it, and what will be and will not be covered. I mean, sure, other countries seem to have solved that problem, and we could model a system on one or more of theirs, but where’s the fun in that?

And if we agree that health care is not a basic right, we solve that problem, but we have other ones – like all these uninsured, and underinsured people.

  • And folks not getting preventive care but rather incredibly expensive curative care.
  • And companies like our automobile companies going bankrupt in some part because of the cost of health insurance.
  • And, oh yeah, people dying in the streets.

For the record, I do believe that we need a policy on health care as a basic right, and my belief is that it should be. Perhaps the most important reason is social justice; we all share in the public good. This is what virtually every other nation of the first world has long realized. When T.R. Reid asked the leaders of the countries he visited for “Sick Around the World” how many of their citizens went bankrupt as a result of health care debts, they all said none. The most dramatic response was from the President of the Swiss Confederation, a conservative who had originally opposed the Swiss program in the early 90s. “No one,” he boomed in his French-accented English, “why, it would be a national scandal!”

The health of our society depends upon the health of all of us.

  • When people crowd our emergency rooms, not with minor illnesses, but with serious illnesses that could have been prevented with earlier treatment, that is a scandal.
  • When parents cannot afford their own health care and their illnesses threaten their ability to keep providing for their children, that is a scandal.
  • When people stay in jobs they hate, or forego the opportunity to start a new business, because they rightfully fear being uninsured, that is a scandal.
  • When our friends and neighbors, parents and children, only take partial doses of their medicine because it is a choice between that and not eating, that is a scandal.
  • When a hard-working man with chest pain can see the billboards advertising the superb heart care available at our local hospitals and know they are not meant for him because he is uninsured, that is a scandal.

When we are all in it together, we all have an interest in making the system be as good as it can be. The efforts of those of us who are more educated, more financially able, more vocal, more empowered will ensure that the needs of those who are less able to lobby for themselves are also met.

Just as our nation cannot survive half-slave and half-free, or with only half of adults having the vote, we cannot survive with only some of us having access to health care.

We need to do this for all of us, for, after all, ultimately, we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.


Susan Miller MD said...

Yes! This is an eloquent statement of the problem. Healthcare reform is both a moral and a financial issue. But all anyone "in charge" wants to talk about is the "how to" of the financial issue. When the moral issue is laid out as clarly as it is here, it is hard for anyone in a wealthy democracy to make an argument against it. This is how we win with the American public. This is the issue to take to the Faith community. Let the ideologues in the "ownership society" be shown up for what they are, "mean."

Barbara said...

Perfectly said. I agree that policy makers have chosen to ignore this pivotal notion. Many legislaters have been indoctrinated for decades by the insurance industry and no longer understand human rights. How do we get this message out to citizens? How do we move past our eloquent words to act on providing for this basic human right?

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