The American Healthcare Debate

In high school, Pete was an athletic, gregarious and outgoing student. In college he sustained a major back injury that was never treated properly and caused him continuous pain. But Pete managed, and went about his life with his wife, children and career. As his pain became a larger and larger obstacle, his use of pain medication turned into abuse. Thus began Pete’s slow decline, first with marital separation, then job loss, then divorce, then more job loss and then the loss of his health insurance. When Pete’s struggle with pain meds became too great to bear, he visited the emergency clinic at his local hospital.

But on his most recent visit to the clinic Pete appeared to be OK. After some testing there were indications that Pete might need help, but it was also discovered that he had no health insurance. Instead of admitting him for additional testing, Pete was sent home. Two hours later his sister found him dead in his apartment.

There is a great debate underway in Congress to solve this serious problem. But when discussing the subject of health care in America, it is as if our political landscape is defined by caricatures. Democrats will have you believe that Republicans are selfish individualists, interested only in riding around inside the well-lined pockets of pharmaceutical companies and insurance providers. Republicans, on the other hand, see Democrats as wild-eyed socialists, intent on using their President to marshal through an anti-capitalist healthcare system that will ruin Medicare and bring down the entire economy, or what is left of it.

The result is a stagnant debate that objectifies the most vulnerable Americans into broad categories of either the useful or the costly.

One common protest is that our government is incapable of designing and operating such a complex system as national healthcare. But there are many examples of efficient, well-run systems without which our public life would come to a screeching halt.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly called the Interstate Highway System, was developed in the mid-1950s. This system of roadways is both the largest integrated highway system in the world and the largest public works project in history. Besides its unquestioned usefulness as a transportation system, our interstates have become a unifying factor in our national life, making neighbors of distant strangers.

Similarly, our public school system ensures that a consistently high level of education is available to all Americans. This government requirement makes education affordable for the needy and even provides a kind of egalitarian mask that makes most students look like each other, regardless of their economic background.

These are not impersonal systems designed by a bureaucracy. Our schools, our highways and many other national initiatives were painstakingly built by Americans who wanted a better future for themselves and their families. These systems draw our nation together and unite us in ways that are often invisible.

Those who see only politics in the healthcare debate do so at their own peril. While we like to believe that we are masters of our own destinies, calamities can get the best of anyone, requiring more from the individual than he or she has left to give. At what point will we realize that our humanity – this living, American organism – requires vigilance? When will it become clear to us that our national health depends on the health of all of our citizens?

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