"It is a magic moment and we must seize it." With those words, President Clinton called upon Congress to respond to the "ethical imperative" of "providing universal, comprehensive health care" for all Americans. In the weeks since that speech, Hillary Rodham Clinton has tirelessly explained and defended the technical details of the administration's Health Security Act. But even in her most technical presentations, she has never failed to remind her audience of the moral dimensions of this cause.
The Clintons are right. The moral stakes in the health reform battle are enormous, and profound. At issue is the very way we think about health care, and about ourselves as community: Will American society, and its laws, continue to treat health care as just another commercial commodity, to be bought and sold among those fortunate enough to afford it? Or will the United States join the other industrialized nations in recognizing health care as an essential public service, a basic human right, to be made available to all members of the community?
The Clinton administration is also on the mark in its assertion that timing is crucial. If the political struggle of the coming months ends without enactment of real reforms, advocates for health justice will likely have to wait a full generation before the possibility of reform is again within grasp. In the meantime, an inhumane and profoundly unjust system will have only deteriorated further, at great cost to us all.
Congress will, of course, enact something called "health reform," simply because both parties recognize the political necessity of doing so. But cynics may be forgiven for recalling "welfare reform," "tax reform," "banking regulation reform," and the like. Some of these previous congressional "reforms" were only minor tinkering. Others were actually harmful.