Sick Jokes: Health Care In America

Just how well are you? Are you well because you enjoy good health or because you can't afford to get sick? Most Americans live in fear of serious illness or injury. They fear it as citizens of all countries do because it is uncomfortable, a reminder of our physical vulnerability and concomitant mortality. By they also fear it uniquely as Americans because here alone, of all the industrialized nations, illness is more than just a physical and psychological threat. Here in "the richest nation on earth" it carries the very real threat of financial disaster and material ruin.

Our national legislators, who style themselves among the brightest and best of the most advanced, wealthiest, most innovative and most democratic nation on earth can find the money in the national budget to extend to themselves the best health care money can buy. They can figure out how to grant tax cuts and how to secure money for "pork barrel" projects. But they claim they can't figure out a way for the United States to guarantee universal health care for all its citizens.

Let me make this clear. According to Congress, we can afford to spend *billions* of dollars on the "Star Wars" missile defense system. We can afford to spend *billions* of dollars on the space program. We can afford to spend *billions* of dollars on an intelligence system that failed to perceive the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union. We can afford to spend *billions* of dollars to bail out banks who have made unrecoverable loans in the third world and even private investment funds that have exercised dismal judgement with their money.

We can afford to give *billions* of dollars to foreign countries as aid - almost always tied to agreements that they use that aid to purchase products made in the USA, an indirect gift to corporate manufacturers. We can afford to pay, with *billions* of our taxpayer dollars, for the "losses" brought on by the deregulation of the Savings and Loan Industry, whose corporate managers earned six and seven figure salaries while running their companies into bankruptcy. But we "can't afford" universal health care.

This is a little like the "let them eat cake" attitude that got Marie Antoinette in so much trouble. Yet our legislators expect to get away with it year after year - and they do! If I told people who were paying me to manage their affairs that they could afford to pay me a princely salary (in the top 10% of US wage earners before perks and outside income sources) but that they don't have enough left over to pay for food, I would immediately be replaced. Yet this is exactly what our legislators want us to live with.

It is not as if there is any magic to supplying universal health care. Every other industrialized country has managed it. It does not work perfectly anywhere, but it works everywhere. Yet our legislators argue that it is "too complex," that America is "too different" from these other countries for their systems to work here. But these brilliant analysts, with their incisive critiques of the shortcomings of existing systems (generated by their expert staffs at taxpayer expense), can't figure out how to devise a system that would work here. They can't even try it.

Not only that, they can't even explain why we can't afford what much less prosperous nations like England, Canada and France routinely provide for their citizens. There are third world countries that have lower infant mortality rates than some of our urban centers. Our life expectancy is barely in the top 25% worldwide, and not in the top 50% among industrialized nations. Why should the United States, which our legislators promise will never take a back seat to anyone in matters of national defense, technical expertise or corporate productivity, be slipping toward a third-world level of health care for most of our citizens?

Instead of the single, not-for-profit bureaucracy of a government funded health insurance plan, our legislators would have us believe that it is more economical to maintain dozens of private, publicly unaccountable, for-profit insurance companies. These companies have to add profit margins and out-of-control salaries for top executives to their operating costs, but our legislators argue that they can deliver health care of equal quality for a lower cost. The argument is absurd on the face of it.

The enormous escalation of medical costs in the last three decades reflects the greed of the medical/industrial complex and the insurance companies that fund it. By making health care more expensive and the risks of remaining uninsured more dire, these companies have increased their own business. They point to the spiraling costs of health care to justify their own increases in fees (without mentioning their increasing profits).The response to out-of-control health care costs has been not to cut fees or profits, but to control them by limiting the availability of health care.

The insurance companies, fed by enormous revenues from the investment divisions where they deposit their surplus profits, are major contributors to the political campaigns of the very legislators who claim that "the government has no business interfering in health care." Is there a pattern here?

A legislature that is indebted to the insurance industry will never move to curtail it. The ultimate motives of the kind of men we currently elect to elect to the Congress are selfish and greedy. Otherwise, they would not be willing to accept lavish benefits while denying even a basic minimum of care to others. Only through a reform of the campaign financing system that takes the money of special interests, large corporations and their stooges out of the process can we ever hope to break the grip of these big-money interests on national politics. Until then we will continue to become an increasingly sick society - in every sense of the term.