The Health-Care Roller Coaster Rolls On

We continue the roller coaster ride that we hope will end with universal or near universal coverage for health care in the United States. Those of us who favor, at the very least, a public option had reason to be glad on one day and reason to be sad the next. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid one day says he will present a bill to the full Senate containing a public option that will also allow states the opportunity to opt out. We are glad. Such a proposal ought to be able to get 60 votes to stop a filibuster. The next day, Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who caucuses with the Democrats, says he will join the Republicans to filibuster this proposal. Our hopes take a hit.

Recent polls show that most Americans favor a public option, but the road to this end remains strewn with obstacles. The obstacles seem to not only be the various details of the plan, but certain presumptions of our lawmakers.

Many of them say that a government run plan would raise the national debt. Senator Lieberman is quoted in The New York Times saying that a public option would be "another entitlement program that will end up increasing the national debt." The logic that argues against this position is: the cost of care for the uninsured drives up costs for those who are insured because these costs are passed on to the insured. Once everyone is insured, there will be no need to pass on these costs. More people will have access to primary care and prevention screenings which mean that health problems can be detected earlier when treatment is cheaper. Thus, universal coverage ought to bring down costs for everyone.

Some Senators are concerned about affordability. This is a reasonable objection. Citizens will be mandated to buy insurance. The question is whether people who are already spending all of one paycheck to get to the next paycheck can afford another monthly bill. This is one reason why a single payer system financed through a value added tax is preferable. It would release employers from the obligation to provide health insurance, and free them to increase wages. We would pay for health care when we shop.

Our lawmakers are worried about maintaining insurance companies and their profits. Without a public option, health-care reform becomes yet another way to transfer wealth from the bottom to the top. We have not settled the question whether basic health care ought to be subject to the profit motive.

So we ride the roller coaster over policy details. The larger moral questions of health care as a human right, the role of government to provide for the health of citizens, the responsibility of lawmakers to insist upon efficient government for the sake of the common good, go unaddressed.

My question is: what is the larger moral question that our Congress members are willing to lose their seats over? What conviction, faith, transcendence, divine command are they willing to hear and to take their political career up Mt. Moriah to sacrifice if need be?

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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