Caring for everyone makes a nation great

Published: 8/13/2017 10:00 AM
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People on all sides of the health care debate probably agree that the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “Obamacare”) is not a permanent solution for Americans. So, where can we go from here?

For years, we’ve been fed horror stories about single-payer and nationalized health care systems in other countries: long lines, lack of hospital beds, impersonal and inferior care, crumbling infrastructure, etc. When traveling abroad, I question people about health care in their country and their own experiences, expecting to hear those horrors confirmed.

But I have never met a single European or Canadian who would trade their system for ours.

They tell me with gratitude and pride that their system provides affordable medical care for everyone.

In the U.S., we continue to pay the highest per capita health care costs among nations, yet with poorer outcomes in a system that is still out of reach for millions. Here, losing your job also means losing your health care insurance (if you had any in the first place). And until the ACA passed, we could be denied individual coverage because of past health needs, including “normal” conditions like giving birth.

People in 58 other nations enjoy some form of universal access health care; systems vary, depending on governmental structure, means, local realities.

Imagine their peace of mind and sense of freedom. Imagine knowing an accident or sickness during a time of unemployment won’t plunge you into debt. That treatment of your chronic condition or that of a loved one will continue. That even with part-time work, you’ll still have access to medical care. That an employer won’t offer to cover you, but not your family.

People I talk to abroad can’t understand how any system of representative government—a government “of the people”—would fail to see the cruelty in denying people access to care. Or the connection between a healthy people and a productive society.

They’ve asked me to explain the peculiar tendency of so many Americans to “not want” health insurance, which effectively cuts them off from professional health care.

Their question exposes a basic dishonesty underlying our public debate. Over and over, we’re shown images of people protesting this idea of “forced” health care insurance. The most recent debates about dismantling the ACA were filled with talk about “choice”: letting us choose our level of coverage, choose to have only catastrophic coverage with high deductibles, or choose to have no coverage at all “because we are healthy at the moment” (as if that could never change).

Let’s be honest: People don’t choose to cut themselves off from access to a doctor. People refuse health care insurance when the financial burden is unmanageable. That’s not “choosing the level of care they want,” that’s called “doing without.”

Countries with universal health care systems continue their search for ways to make their system live up to its promise. Here we argue about who should be covered: Veterans? Children? The poor? The almost-poor? Women? The middle class? The unemployed? The chronically ill? The elderly? The disabled?

This very question comes with this assumption: We, as a society, consider certain human beings unworthy of medical care.

We need to confront this assumption openly and directly to find our way forward. Enough of hiding behind high-sounding discussions about who “should” be covered. Since we seem unable to commit to universal access, let’s turn the question around. Who should we abandon, so that some people can see a doctor? Who should we shut out? Whose lives do we just not care about? These questions would force a more honest debate.

All three Republican repeal-and- replace proposals would have significantly reduced the number of Americans with access the health care. All three were rejected by Congress. That gives me hope. Are we beginning to understand that access to medical care is good for us all?

If 58 other countries can find ways to give all their citizens access to a doctor, then so can we. I urge you to contact your representatives to tell them so.

Caring for all is the mark of a great nation.

(Lynn E. Palermo is a founding member of the Susquehanna Valley Progressives.)

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