Op-Ed: Health care for all still elusive

By:  Robert Koehler

"THIS AMENDMENT starts from the premise that health care is a human right, and that every citizen, rich or poor, should have access to health care, just as every citizen has access to the fire department, the police or public schools."

And for a moment last week the fog of jargon and compromise lifted on the Senate floor and a vision of what's possible hovered over the Capitol. We could do this. We could build this kind of society, not just talk about it. We could begin moving beyond the stuck, scared place that keeps us at odds and fighting one another (and much of the world). We could return to the task of creating what economist Riane Eisler calls "the caring economy."

But the vision Bernie Sanders articulated in his amendment, which would have transformed HR 3590, Congress' twisted parody of health-care reform, into life-saving legislation, will remain just a vision for now.

It's the best we'll get from our elected reps in this grim holiday season, as the economy continues to fissure and the dreams and security of more and more of us buckle and break, and decent medical coverage becomes increasingly a matter of luxury or luck. Things aren't bad enough for real change yet, or maybe the demand for it still remains pale in comparison to the lobbying pressures of Big Insurance and the prevailing free-market dogma among establishment politicians.

But for-profit health care guarantees that many people will not be able to get coverage. There's no escaping this. As a result, basic health care for all Americans -- however cost-effective and spiritually healthy it would be for the nation -- does not yet have the status of, for instance, gun ownership: It is not a right.

Summing up the statistical argument Sanders makes in support of a single-payer universal health care plan, John Nichols writes in the Nation: "The 1,300 profit-making private insurance companies administer thousands of separate plans and waste about $400 billion a year on administrative costs, profiteering, high CEO compensation packages, and advertising. Health care providers spend another $210 billion on administrative costs, mostly to deal with insurance paperwork. As a result, the United States spends $7,129 per person on health care, almost double the amount spent by nearly any other industrialized country."

Yet, 46 million Americans do not have any health insurance, and for millions more the coverage is inadequate but budget-breaking.

What I see is that, as law-of-the-jungle conditions, which have always been the default setting for the poor, begin applying to an ever greater segment of the U.S. middle class, demands for structural change -- and for a more intelligent media to understand and report on those demands -- will intensify. We can either pursue distractions or we can pursue a cohering vision of social justice, mutual support and healing. The time to choose is now. We're not in this alone.

Contact syndicated columnist Robert Koehler