A Matter of Life and Death

In May, Sen. Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. The news sent shock waves throughout Washington and across the country. The good news is that as an elected official of financial means, Sen. Kennedy has access to the very best medical care available. Shortly after his diagnosis, a team of nationally renowned oncologists and surgeons successfully removed parts of the tumor, improving his prognosis for a longer life.

One day after this surgery, a janitor and mother of two named Ercilia Sandoval stood before 3,500 fellow members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to tell her own—very different—health-care story.

Two years earlier, Ercilia and her fellow janitors at Houston’s biggest cleaning companies won a long fight to form a union and, for the first time, get health coverage. But for Ercilia that victory would come too late. The mother of two young daughters had already been diagnosed with cancer, and without insurance she had been unable to afford lifesaving treatments. “I don’t want what happened to me—to become sick without access to medical insurance—to happen to anyone else,” she said, describing what it was like “to be rejected by a hospital despite all the great pain you’re feeling.”

Ercilia Sandoval. Ted Kennedy. Two individuals fighting for their lives in the same country, but with dramatically different experiences. The scene compels us to cry out with the prophet Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”

This is the legacy of our health-care system’s moral and economic failure: nearly 10 million children without coverage; families one medical emergency away from bankruptcy; elderly and infirm people without the resources necessary to live—or die—in relative comfort and with dignity.

WE MUST find a solution. We must build a new, uniquely American health-care system that works for everyone, and that meets the following criteria:

• Affordable care must be accessible to all people, regardless of economic or employment status, age, race, or health condition.

• A basic level of competent, quality care must be available to all.

• A full range of public health, preventive, primary care, acute care, and long-term and palliative care services must be accessible for all people.

• In our wonderfully diverse society, care must be delivered in a way that is sensitive to a patient’s culture and traditions.

• The system of health-care delivery must be transformed, without compromising patient safety or care, so that it is ecologically sustainable.

There is no shortage of reform proposals that include these critical elements. Our challenge in solving this problem is not a lack of ideas, but a lack of political will. That’s why SEIU is working to mobilize our nation for change: We’re pulling together coalitions of business, labor, civic, and faith leaders; we’re sponsoring a nationwide bus tour, the Road to American Health Care, that is highlighting the real people struggling to afford care; and we’re galvanizing people across the country to elect leaders committed to fixing health care. It’s up to all of us to hold those leaders accountable, to make sure they get the job done.

All of this work is guided by a core belief in the inherent dignity of working people—a mission we share with the faith community. Ours is a partnership that has helped bring about monumental change at crucial moments in our nation’s history. Now we face another such moment. It has never been more important that the labor movement and the church stick together in this, the civil rights struggle of this generation: the fight to transform our broken health-care system.

As a nation we are called to follow the example of the Good Samaritan, who bandaged wounds and provided care without regard to the social or economic status of the sufferer. Priest or Samaritan, senator or janitor, we must heed the call to do the same.

SEIU Executive Vice President Mary Kay Henry is a 25-year veteran of the labor movement, a leading health-care strategist, and a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on Catholic Health Care and Work.

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