Everybody’s talking about health care. But it’s not because of the incompetent ideological circus playing in Congress. That offers a fascinating look into the Republican soul, but few of my conversations about health care mention politics. Talk about health care is mostly about the health of my family, my friends, and my friends’ families, and the care they need.
As a healthy youngster, my input to health care discussions at home was usually, “I’m fine.” I probably said that to my mother while I was soaking in a tub full of hot water after playing touch football. She didn’t believe me, so I got on the operating table soon enough to stop the bleeding from my ruptured spleen.
In college, I remember a lot of conversations about whether we should do something that was obviously bad for our health. I leaned toward caution, not popular then, but looking better in retrospect.
Then my parents and my friends’ parents got old. Then we got old. Now most conversations with friends and family begin right after “hello” with talk about health care. “How are you?” is not a meaningless greeting, it’s an earnest question.
There’s no cure for old age, and I don’t care. I do care about how many people close to me are dealing with forgetfulness, blood tests, pain, and walkers; with health problems of mothers and fathers and ourselves; with nurses, doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies.
Longer-lived women are taking care of men who are sinking, along with many but fewer cases the other way around. Baby boomers like me turn into caregivers, managing doctors’ visits and prescription drugs, making nursing homes a second home.
Times have changed, too. The earnest TV commercials for cough medicine, and aspirin and “Preparation H” have turned into ubiquitous ads for medicines that might make you sick or kill you; for lawyers who will sue your doctor; for hospitals that will treat you, and insurance companies that might pay them.
It’s hard not to think constantly about health. Those thoughts can be difficult, sad, perplexing, and inconclusive. Joys are recovery from illness, the kindness of health care professionals, health scares that are false alarms. The sad stuff can last a long time, changing into something different but permanent at the end.
And we talk about money. It costs money to live and maybe more to die. Whose money will pay for the health care of people I love? That’s not the first thing we talk about. It’s not the most important thing most of the time. But it’s one of the most perplexing.
When I get a bill from a doctor, I have no idea who is going to pay what. Will Medicare pick up the tab? Will my insurance company pitch in and for how much? What will I pay at the end? How much of my deductible have I used up?
Should I get long-term care insurance? Or should I have gotten it 10 years ago? Should I save money on insurance premiums by taking a high deductible? Or is that a risky bet?
Nobody can take away such worries. Ignorance doesn’t help, either from those who shouted “Keep your government hands off my Medicare,” or from our President, who says he doesn’t care what happens to the rest of us, now that he didn’t get his way.
I believe that we have a right to get help with our health care from our government. We all need that help, every day, to prevent con artists from lying to us about miracle cures, to prevent the pharmaceutical industry from selling untested drugs, to prevent insurance companies from kicking the sickest off their rolls, to sponsor research which can save lives.
Our government got into the health care business to save lives, and it has been doing that, more or less successfully, for nearly two centuries. In my home town, Jacksonville, the state of Illinois long ago created institutions to care for people with health problems: a school for the deaf in 1839, a school for the blind in 1849, a hospital for the mentally ill in 1851.
Progressives around Teddy Roosevelt advocated for universal health coverage before World War I, at the same time that our government began to try to prevent disease by inspecting meat packing plants, and prohibiting adulterated drugs and false therapeutic claims.
The creators of our nation believed that “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” were the most important universal rights to be protected by government. It’s not clear what led Thomas Jefferson to elevate the pursuit of happiness to an inalienable right. If that phrase means anything, it must include government participation in our efforts to stay healthy. How can anyone be happy who can’t pay for health care they need?
There’s no such thing as a right to good health. But as Americans, we have a right to get collective help, if we need it, to stay healthy. That means government protection from poisons in our food, air, and water (see Flint, Michigan), from false claims by drug producers, and from medical malpractice. In today’s world, it must also mean assistance in paying for medical treatment for those without resources.
So says the Declaration of Independence.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 25, 2017