The Common Good

Kennedy, Health Care, and Imperfection

The first time I met Sen. Edward Kennedy was in the underbelly of the Capitol on the Capitol Subway. I heard people yelling, "Senator Kennedy!" and a crowd gathered around him in the midst of people getting on and off the train. My family was there for the bicentennial celebration. My mother read in a magazine that kids should be dressed similarly in a crowd and, of course, dressed us in red, white, and blue; we did not go by unnoticed. He stopped the crowd, looked at us, and introduced himself. He looked at me (the oldest) and asked me where we were from and about our trip. His kindness touched my newly-adolescent self (when one tends to feel invisible and obvious simultaneously), and he made me feel like he cared -- even in the midst of the crowd.

That was also the day I first heard about Mary Jo Kopechne and Chappaquiddick. My parents were quick to later let me know that he was not a nice man. My parents (I come from a medical family) feared "socialized medicine" and protested that people like Sen. Kennedy would pave the ruination of the American economic system and "destroy everything we've worked for." My mother, raised in Chicago, spoke with disdain of Joe Kennedy's owning the Merchandise Mart and they spoke of their importation of alcohol (another negative for them as tee-totalers). They had no good word for the Kennedy family.

I share this recollection because it seems to typify how we in America treat our politicians- -- and each other. We react with adolescent fervor, where someone is "always" or "never" and we offer judgments of "good" and "bad" and neglect profound nuances in them -- and us. The morning after Sen. Kennedy died I watched news reports and prayed for his family. This time I looked at him with the eyes of a pastor and hospice chaplain. As I listened, I pondered and prayed. What would it have been like for him to have three brothers die in the midst of serving our country? My uncle was murdered, but it wasn't nationally televised. I thought of all that he and his brothers helped to achieve for civil rights and voting rights. And I prayed for his family in their mourning.

As I prayed I reflected on his quotes that were playing on the news. When Sen. Kennedy endorsed Obama, he said,

"But I believe there is one candidate who has extraordinary gifts of leadership and character, matched to the extraordinary demands of this moment in history. He understands what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the 'fierce urgency of now.' He will be a president who refuses to be trapped in the patterns of the past. He is a leader who sees the world clearly without being cynical. He is a fighter who cares passionately about the causes he believes in, without demonizing those who hold a different view. He is tough-minded, but he also has an uncommon capacity to appeal to 'the better angels of our nature.'"

As I reflected on that call to a different kind of politics, I went back to review Kennedy's piece entitled, "The Cause of My Life" in Newsweek (7/27/09). He recalled the times he has relied on the American medical system (his broken back in 1964, and son Teddy's cancer surgery in 1973, and daughter Kara's cancer in 2002). He wrote "that health care must be affordable and available for every mother or father who hears a sick child cry in the night and worries about the deductibles and co-pays if they go to the doctor." He spoke of the letters he has read from Americans in medical payment struggles and noted, "There's always dignity, but too often desperation."

Kennedy said that "Incremental measures won't suffice anymore." This is what he seeks, according to this article:

  1. Cover the uninsured.
  2. Cut the cost of health insurance premiums.
  3. Move from tests and treatments to quality and positive outcomes.
  4. Tax credit for saving for long-term care treatment.
  5. We need to prevent disease and not just cure it. (Today 80 percent of health spending pays for care for the 20 percent of Americans with chronic illnesses like diabetes, cancer, or heart disease.)

Kennedy concluded this list with this observation:

What I haven't heard the critics discuss is the cost of inaction. If we don't reform the system, if we leave things as they are, health-care inflation will cost far more over the next decade than health-care reform. We will pay far more for far less -- with millions more Americans uninsured or underinsured. This would threaten not just the health of Americans but also the strength of the American economy. Health-care spending already accounts for 17 percent of our entire domestic product. In other advanced nations, where the figure is around 10 percent, everyone has insurance and health outcomes that are equal or better than ours. This disparity undermines our ability to compete and succeed in the global economy. General Motors spends more per vehicle on health care than on steel.

As Abraham Lincoln reminded a divided nation before: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." It seems that no one has the perfect idea for health care because, indeed, none of us are perfect and no plan for such a vast undertaking will be perfect. Much discussion and dissension will occur. But we cannot be the nation we have yearned for and fought for until we live like all life is precious ... and paid for in a system that refuses to allow some of our citizens to die or go bankrupt because they did not have access to health care. As Sen. Kennedy said to the Democratic Convention a year before he died:

For me, this is a season of hope. New hope for justice and fair prosperity for the many, and not just for the few. New hope -- and this is the cause of my life -- new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American -- north, south, east, west, young, old -- will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.

Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry is a pastor in Michigan and serves as a hospice chaplain.

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