EDITORIAL

Founding Fathers Know Best

Posted Jan. 26, 2011, at 7:46 p.m.

One of the most common objections to the health care overhaul legislation passed by the 110th Congress is that it is unconstitutional for one of two reasons: The federal government can’t compel citizens to buy health insurance; and, the states, not the federal government, should determine health insurance standards. A corollary is that universal health insurance would have been anathema to the Founding Fathers.

We don’t have to speculate about what men like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams thought about health insurance. We can just look at their actions.

In 1798, Congress passed “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen,” which created a system of government-operated marine hospitals. Privately employed sailors were required to pay a tax to support it.

The act was passed by the 5th Congress, which included many drafters of the Constitution and signed by President John Adams, also an author. Then president of the Senate, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote extensively about limiting the power of the federal government, also supported the marine hospital system.

As should be the case today, the push for health care — and a way to pay for it — came from businesses. Shipping was a major part of the U.S. economy in the 18th century. Injuries and illnesses — often from travels to faraway lands — often left maritime ships with too few sailors. This was bad for business and the economy.

So, Congress stepped in. Even though sailors were privately employed, every one was required to pay a tax — about 1 percent of their earnings — to pay for health care. The ship’s owner withheld the money and turned it over to the government. If a sailor didn’t pay, he wasn’t allowed to work. Ships that had not collected the tax were not allowed to dock at U.S. ports.

The money was used to set up the Marine Hospital Service. Ailing sailors were treated in these federally run hospitals. Sick and injured sailors, after proving they had paid their tax, were given vouchers for treatment at one of the hospitals.

The program was later expanded to cover those who worked on the country’s rivers.

“Clearly, the nation’s founders serving in the 5th Congress, and there were many of them, believed that mandated health insurance coverage was permitted within the limits established by our Constitution,” Rick Ungar wrote on his blog for Forbes last week. Mr. Ungar was the first to post the details of the sick and disabled seaman legislation and point out its similarities to the current health care bill.

“The moral of the story is that the political rightwing has to stop pretending they have the blessings of the Founding Fathers as their excuse to oppose whatever this president has to offer,” Mr. Ungar wrote.

“History makes it abundantly clear that they do not.”

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