Hightower and health care

Jim Hightower visited the Society last Sunday, agitating for universal health care. (I liked his reminder that in a washing machine the “agitator” is what gets the dirt out.) He’s a fun speaker and we appreciate that he hung around afterward so people could chat with him in person. His website, for those interested, is here.

Health care is something that’s been important to me for a long time, since I used to be self-employed and uninsured. Depending on the city I lived in, I was often pleasantly surprised with the low-income health and dental clinics available—I had many excellent and caring nurse practitioners—but they are useful mostly for preventative check-ups and minor repairs, something a lot of low-income people don’t have the time or education to keep up with. And the less preventative care, the worse the emergencies that inevitably come. I ignored a toothache for too long once and ended up needing a root canal. My clinic offered me an endless supply of pain killers, but that was it. I found that I could get reasonably-priced surgery at the local dental school, but not in a reasonable amount of time. This one root canal took over a dozen visits. My dental student learned a lot, and I learned that you get what you pay for. And that you don’t get what you can’t pay for. The post of the crown I got there is made out of a paper clip. Really. It’s lasted 15 years, though.

After the demise of the Clinton health plan, I thought that universal health care was doomed. Now I think it’s inevitable, because it’s not only morally but economically the right thing to do for the country, and pretty much everyone acknowledges that now. So we can look forward, but with our eyes sharply focused, because the next step will be making sure that we’re offered solutions that actually work for everyone.

I was thinking about this in connection with bird flu (or rather, BIRD FLU!!!!). Dr. George B. Johnson recently gave a great talk to our Tuesday Women’s Association on it, and his main point was that if we really want to avert a plague, we need to stop trying to figure out how to save just Americans and instead put our resources into monitoring the countries where human-to-human bird flu will first break out, and then send all the medicine we’ve got to that area immediately. The day after his talk I tuned into an NPR special on bird flu and heard that what we really should be doing is stockpiling canned goods and making sure that Americans have enough medicine for ourselves. Apparently Johnson’s point of view has not achieved human-to-human contagiousness yet either.

What does this have to do with universal health care? Voters will soon be presented with a lot of competing options that will fall all along the individualist-communitarian spectrum, from individual health savings accounts to Canadian-style plans. While you’re weighing what each of these will mean to your pocketbook, don’t forget that public health is like clean air—you can’t buy your own and say “Good luck” to your neighbor. Whether you believe we are our brothers and sisters’ keepers or not, unless we plan to seal ourselves in bubbles we’re going to be breathing our brothers and sisters’ germs (or cooties, as my actual brother and I used to call them).

And don’t forget the most important message from Jim Hightower last weekend: “Presbyterians” can be rearranged to spell “Britney Spears.” So bird flu must be nigh.