Editorial: Inherent compassion

Barre-Montpelier Times Argus

The campaign by Vermont activists to push for a single-payer health care system for the state of Vermont begins with a moral imperative and moves to a practical proposal.

The Health Care Is a Human Right campaign is spearheaded by the Vermont Workers Center and includes community activists from around the state. The campaign held a public hearing in Rutland on Tuesday to focus attention on a proposal for Vermont to lead the way by organizing itself into a single pool of citizens who would all receive health care merely by virtue of their residency here.

To say that health care is a human right is to venture into the realm of political philosophy that takes us back to the founding documents of the nation. The Declaration of Independence held that "all men are created equal" and are endowed by their creator with "unalienable rights" and that among them are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Inhering in our humanity are other rights, spelled out by the Bill of Rights, such as the freedoms of speech and religion and freedom, in various ways, from the arbitrary power of the government.

Late in his presidency, Franklin Roosevelt was developing the concept that among our unalienable rights were those expressed in what was called a "Second Bill of Rights." He believed that unless the individual had the benefit of basic housing, food, education, health, and security, he would be incapable of the exercise of his other rights.

The Social Security system, which provides a basic income to the elderly, was founded on the idea that freedom from the fear of destitution was essential if the elderly were to enjoy a measure of dignity in their final years. Medicare, which provides health care for the elderly, was an expansion of that concept.

The concept that each citizen has the right to certain elementary material goods runs counter to the American concept of individualism — that each person has a responsibility to provide for himself and that a free handout removes the incentive for achievement. Thus, any movement to provide basic levels of sustenance — food stamps, housing subsidies, health care — encounters the resistance of those who believe that these are not the responsibility of the state.

At the most basic human level, the need to provide basic security for our neighbors becomes more readily evident. Someone who suffers a blow — a medical emergency, a fire, a grievous loss — inevitably draws the support of neighbors who bring food, comfort, assistance. Someone whose house burns down does not strictly speaking have a right to assistance from his neighbors, but his neighbors generally feel a sense of responsibility to extend a helping hand — even if the fire was the homeowner's fault. Few of us burn our houses down on purpose.

The sense of responsibility for our neighbors expresses the inherent compassion that binds humanity together, the compassion that makes us human. Whether we call it a right to receive or a responsibility to provide, it amounts to the same thing.

Health care falls in the same category. We are now confronted with a health care system that falls woefully short of actually providing care for people, and the costs of care are bankrupting individuals and companies. Just ask General Motors.

The Health Care Is a Human Rights campaign is saying it doesn't have to be this way. Advocates say Vermont is already spending more than enough to provide high-quality care for everyone through taxes we pay for Medicare, Medicaid, veterans' care, Catamount and other state programs, plus the premiums we pay for our own insurance, plus the out-of-pocket expenses and deductibles we pay, plus the money that goes into our premiums to pay for care given to those who can't pay.

They propose establishing a system that would use all this money more efficiently and fairly to provide care for everyone, without the desperation, bankruptcy and neglect that characterize the present system.

Achieving that sort of system is a matter of education, economics and politics. Policymakers in Vermont are asking themselves what is doable. The campaign has done a good job of showing what ought to be done.