A powerful case for making care a right for all

It was an argument heavy with emotion; but it was the right argument.
In making a powerful case for sweeping health care reform to the nation before a joint session of Congress Wednesday night, President Obama quoted from a letter written to him by Sen. Ted Kennedy before he died. Health care, he wrote, is “above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”
At another point, the president observed that, beginning with Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, many U.S. presidents fought for universal health care for Americans only to be defeated by the special interests.
“I am not the first president to take up this cause,” he said, “but I am determined to be the last.”
Then the camera focused on Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, whose father, Rep. John Dingell Sr., began in 1943 submitting a national health insurance bill every year. His son has continued the quixotic quest. (Allen County, it must be mentioned here, owes the senior Rep. Dingell a debt. He was one of the advocates of the federal program that provided most of the money it took to build Allen County Hospital and move the community into the era of modern medicine.)
The first Rep. Dingell served with President Harry Truman, who also was a strong advocate of universal health care. With his address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama repeated the all-out effort made by President Bill Clinton and his wife to treat health care as a right due every American.
It is, as Sen. Kennedy wrote, a moral issue; a matter of national ethical priorities. It simply is not right to allow people to die because they cannot afford the health care they need. But it happens every day in our nation. It is not right for families to be forced to rely on neighbors to hold bake sales, car washes and celebrity auctions to help them cope with a hospital bill or the ruinous cost of a life-saving or-gan transplant. It is not right to send thousands of American families into personal bankruptcy because of enormous medical bills, yet it happens every year.

CRITICS ARE rightfully skeptical of the president’s ability to transform the U.S. health care system without adding to the national deficit.
The possibility is there, as current studies show. Universal care would pay for itself if the cost-paring practices in place at such industry leaders as the Mayo and Cleveland clinics were made universal. To do that, however, would require the medical community to shrink itself and for many practitioners to accept dramatically lower annual incomes — or, absent that voluntary discipline — a level of government management Congress would be loath to impose.
But the facts are undeniable. Health care costs about 50 percent more in the United States as a percentage of gross na-tional product than it does in the other wealthy nations of the world and yet health outcomes in our country are not as good as they are in many countries with similar demographics and smaller economies.
It would, therefore, be possible to achieve universal health care in the U.S. without breaking the bank. It could be done by cutting out duplicative and unnecessary tests, using teams of doctors, substituting sal-aries for the fee-for-service compensation system, reducing the cost of medicines through negotiations with drug companies, reforming malpractice law and, in short, learning from the clinics and medical communities, which have discovered on their own how to practice very high quality medicine at a cost far below national per capita averages.
Will that happen without government fiat? The odds aren’t good. Investment bankers don’t have a monopoly on greed. Reform that paid for itself would require the amount of money flowing through the health care system to be cut back from the current 16-17 percent of GNP to the rich-nation average of 11 percent — where it should be. Such a prospect would raise an instant army in opposition who would dig in their heels and scream bloody murder.
Tens of millions of Americans would be better off under universal care; but those screaming thousands would lose some income and some status. So far in our history, from Teddy Roosevelt to Barack Obama, the thousands have carried the day. This time, with a little luck and a great deal of hard work, the millions could prevail.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.