Opinion

Health care a moral issue

I thought it would be a good idea to pick up the health care discussion from the letter we received from Christian Cary a few weeks back.

Mr. Cary makes a number of excellent points, and you cannot fault the sentiment of those who believe that the health care system is basically okay as it is — why should we should we spend big bags of money on it at a time when even little bags of money are like hens’ teeth?

However, like Mr Cary’s claim that reporters like me are “cheerleaders for the government,” much of what we are hearing from the most vocal participants in the debate is aimless noise.

For one, many of the journalists, health care professionals and civic leaders who are now calling for health care reform were also doing so when the government had no interest in the issue. This paper was reporting the concerns of doctors like Swedish’s John Milne that cuts to the basic health care plan would sabotage an already ailing system, long before Obama’s reform package was front and center.

What’s that called? I believe it’s called “caring about an issue that’s important.” But I guess you could call it cheerleading for the government, as long as you are not concerned with making any sense.

Unfortunately, not making any sense has been a big part of the public contribution to the political process on the issue.

My wife works in the health sciences and is studying for her Masters in Public Health.

She is an American who has lived abroad, and I am an Australian who has been perfectly covered by socialized health care for most of my life — as the son of a single mother, as a student, as a barman, and as a newspaper editor. I would put a big question mark over claims that 70 percent of citizens in countries with more government control of health care are highly dissatisfied.

If you don’t earn much, you get decent coverage. If you earn a bit more and want to pay for better coverage, like private rooms, wider choice of doctors, then you can. Sounds terrifying doesn’t it?

The irrational fear of any form of socialization has again hijacked meaningful debate in America. Palin’s weird and flailing comment about “death panels” was an example of the hysterical grandstanding which is freaking people out and dividing them along typical conservative and liberal lines.

Why would she make these comments? Because mobilizing the misguided patriotism of those too scared to listen to what is being said is about the only strength she has. She may as well have been boot-scooting in an American flag bikini for all the contribution she made to the grown-ups talking.

Let’s leave our parochialism at the door for one minute and have a look at why all those lefty, liberal journo’s are coming down so hard on the health system in this country.

According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. health care system, which costs more per person than any other country in the world, ranks 37th on a list of objective measures of medical outcomes, behind places like Colombia and Portugal. The U.S. is 44th in the world in infant mortality, the rate of which dramatically increases the lower you go down the income bracket.

Forty-seven million Americans do not regularly have health-insurance. This is about 18 percent of the insurable market, and includes 41 percent of Americans with incomes of $20,000 to $40,000.

These are figures from the WHO, the most respected organization of medical professionals in the world, not a lobby group masquerading as a “think tank.” There are many more objective measures that indicate not only is the level of care not good, but that it is burning money.

Medical debt is the principal cause of bankruptcy in the United States at a time when, surprise surprise, medical, insurance and pharmaceutical companies consistently return billion dollar profits.

Most of the socialized health care systems that many fear are above the U.S. on the WHO list — providing better care at a fraction of the cost. Sure, the current system probably is pretty good for those wealthy enough to afford decent coverage, and for the companies which profit.

But in many ways this debate is not one about those who are already covered. They can keep paying, and have every right to be happy with system as they see it. This is about those who have been left behind. And there are too many.

A few weeks ago I heard about a group called Remote Area Medical, described as being America’s version of Doctors with Borders. It’s a non-profit group of volunteer doctors “dedicated to serving mankind by providing free health care, dental care, eye care,” amongst other things. They do so through donations and benefactors, and in the past have served some of the poorest communities in the world, places like Guyana and Tanzania. They also serve remote communities in America, poor areas like rural Appalachia. They set up clinics in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Lately, they have expanded their program of free clinics for uninsured and underinsured people in cities around Los Angeles. Sometimes the lines to get in begin forming the night before. Fences and guards keep everyone orderly. These scenes are not that far from those of refugee camps of distant, faraway places.

We are at a point now where this country is relying on the charity of an aid agency to provide one of the most basic of human services. If, as a proud American, you are satisfied with this, then so be it. But it is not liberal propaganda, or political cheerleading.

I have been interested to read lately a number of young Americans who feel that the state of health care in the US is more than about economics or medicine — it is a moral and humanitarian issue.

Thankfully, there are many who understand that citizens and governments have a responsibility to the poor, minority groups, the under-served — indeed, the tired and huddled masses. And they are willing to pay for it.

Disturbingly, this belief that we have a responsibility to support the poorer members of our community is one that diminishes as income levels rise. According to a CBS News/New York Times done in June, 67 percent of Americans earning less than $30,000 would be willing to pay higher taxes so that all Americans would have health insurance they can’t lose.

This compares to 55 percent of those earning $75,000 or higher. Those with household incomes between $50,000 and $75,000 are even less willing to pay more in taxes for universal coverage. I’m sure there are ways to paint this, but any spin covers an ugly truth.

The profit motive in the American health care system is promoting borderline human rights violations.

I would have thought truly patriotic Americans would be excited, and proud, that their country knows it can do better.

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