Waiting for health care to be a right, not a privilege

Posted June 10, 2009, at 5:22 p.m.

I’m pushing 60, but it wasn’t until recently that I took the biggest risk of my life: I went without health insurance coverage for four whole days.

While that may not sound like a big deal to many of the estimated 50 million Americans who don’t have or can’t afford health insurance, it was a first for me. When I recently switched jobs, there was a four-day lag between my old coverage running out and my new coverage kicking in.

Friends and family advised me not to leave the house. If I was fool enough to do so, they suggested that I venture forth within a cocoon of Bubble Wrap, lest some drunken driver run me off the road and put me into intensive care. Even a few days there would pretty much ensure that, without insurance, I’d be penniless, homeless and destitute.

About half of the personal bankruptcies in America are now the direct result of mounting medical bills or the costs of a medical emergency. Ironically, many of those people who are forced to cash out to pay medical bills had health insurance, just not sufficient coverage to pay all the bills. That doesn’t happen in Canada.

While Canada’s universal health care system has its own set of issues, being able to afford health care isn’t among them. A Canadian may be forced to wait six months for coronary bypass surgery, but she won’t face a mountain of debt after the fact, as there is no direct cost beyond taxes allocated to health care delivery from province to province. Bottom line is this: No one in Canada ever faced bankruptcy because of illness or injury.

It was 1974 when I arrived in Washington, D.C., as a reporter to cover, among other issues, a new-fangled concept being pushed by Teddy Kennedy, something called “national health insurance.” Just as they are now, well-entrenched special interests that line their pockets by providing inadequate care through a deeply flawed health care delivery system were making sure then that universal, government-funded access to health care would never happen. There was just too much for them to lose and too little for them to gain as the middlemen between doctor and patient. And, 35 years later, there still is.

Every president and presidential candidate since Richard Nixon has promised some sort of health care reform. Not surprisingly, it has never happened. The enormity of the task of meaningful health care reform makes it the Mount Everest of social and political issues.

The political reality is that those who need universal health care most — children, the elderly, the poor and the millions with jobs but no benefits — are those with the least political clout. Those with the most political clout are well-entrenched in the status quo system that rations health care not through waiting times, as in Can-ada, but through income. In America, those with means have access to health care and, most likely, health care insurance. Those who don’t, don’t. It’s yet another application of the golden rule: Those with the gold make the rules.

As America embarks on a new approach to government, let’s hope that an overhaul of health care and public access to it is high not only on President Obama’s reform agenda, but those of Congress. Like most issues his administration faces, there won’t be a quick fix. Nonetheless, 35 years of meaningless political rhetoric seems quite enough, thank you.

I may be pushing 80 before health care in America is viewed as a right, not a privilege. Until then, I’ll just have to continue to cling to the strong belief that has kept me both healthy and debt-free: The only way to survive the American health care system is to do all you can to stay out of it.

Tom Walsh of Gouldsboro is a former journalist. His analysis of the Canadian health care system recently won a special award from the New England Press Association.

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