The Common Good

Government-Run Health Plans and the 'American Way of Life'

Tea-totaling party animals are crying the mantra of the Ghosts of Conservatives-past, "Blankety blank blank will change our American way of life!" Now all the president's men and women -- especially the Blue Dogs -- are not-so-discretely inching away -- some are bolting -- from two heinous words: "public" and "option."

What is the American way of life, anyway?

Earlier this year, my dad was diagnosed with cancer.

It turned out the cancer hadn't spread, so it was treatable. The treatment requires daily drives to Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City for 10 weeks. Each visit easily costs in the thousands. Now, multiply thousands by 50 visits. His treatment would cost at least $50,000 without insurance!

I asked my parents how they are paying for the treatment. Guess what they said: "Medicare and The NJ State Teachers Annuity and Pension fund" -- two government-run plans. No panels decided his treatment. No dropping of the insurance because of any preconditions. And guess what? No rationing.

Dad continued, "It's a good thing I was an educator in New Jersey where educators' pensions cover health insurance." If he had continued to teach in Pennsylvania where he launched his career, he would have had to purchase private insurance. There's a good chance that a private insurance company would have (or could have) dropped his coverage or rationed it.

I asked him, "If we lived in Pennsylvania, you could have been bankrupted by your diagnosis?"

"Yes," he replied.

Tears welled up in my eyes at the thought. The need for health reform hit home.

"What about all those people who don't have government-run plans," I thought, "people whose insurance companies pick and choose their treatment or drop them when they fear they'll actually have to pay out? What about the 14,000 people per day who are losing their health insurance?" This is the current American way of life. My question is why would anyone want to preserve it?

This summer I met Scott and Hillary, a couple from Northern Ireland. Their son landed in the hospital for several weeks this past year. The cost would have been tens of thousands of dollars in the U.S., but Ireland has universal health care. So the cost was $0. Yes, zero. Nada. Ningún. Nothing.

Scott asked me with Irish lilt singing: "If Ireland can do this, certainly the United States -- the richest single country on the planet -- can find a way to do it."

America is the last developed country in the world NOT to provide health care for all of its citizens. The issue is not our ability. It is our will.

In essence, those who say they want to "preserve" this way of life are saying they want to preserve a system that offers the good life for some and whatever-life-you-can-afford for others.

I say, "How dare the tea-totaling partiers plant themselves in the land of self-righteous theoretical conjecture at the expense of real human lives -- lives born from the mind of God?"

They say, "A public option will mean 'big government' and the end of the American way of life. It will present private insurance companies with competition."

"And that's a bad thing, how?" I wonder.

They answer: "Private companies won't be able to keep up with the competition."

"Isn't that market-based capitalism?" I counter. "Isn't it a basic principle of market-based capitalism that competition drives industries to produce better services more efficiently? Wouldn't that be a good thing for the health-care industry and for Americans' health? And, by the way, what does it say about 'big government' that you're afraid that it will be more efficient and better quality than our current 'way of life'?"

Now, all the president's Blue Dogs and all the president's Lions must put health reform back to together again. We entreat you, don't be swayed by the wind. Lead America to a new and better "way of life" -- one that truly values life enough to ensure that every American has a fair shake at preserving theirs.

Lisa Sharon Harper is the executive director of New York Faith & Justice and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

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