Commentary: Fight for health care to honor Elizabeth Edwards

The Kansas City StarDecember 11, 2010 

Elizabeth Edwards is being lauded for the courage and grace she displayed in her battle against cancer and her fight to retain dignity in the public eye.

How to honor her legacy? A defense of health care reform seems like a fitting gesture.

Edwards, who died Tuesday at age 61, believed that every American should have access to affordable health care. She urged her husband, John Edwards, to make affordable care a lynchpin of his 2008 presidential campaign. He did, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton followed suit.

With John Edwards out of the race, Elizabeth advised Obama on health care. She pushed him to support a mandate that every citizen be covered under a health care plan, not just children, which was Obama’s starting position.

Edwards, a brainy lawyer, mastered the complex landscape of U.S. health care. In speeches, TV appearances and writings she zeroed in on the system’s great moral lapse — insurers’ ability, and willingness, to deny benefits to patients who are sick, or older, or employed in hazardous occupations, or even female.

In a series of posts on the Think Progress blog, Edwards skewered Republican presidential candidate John McCain for his premise that the best fix for health care was to enable more Americans to purchase insurance policies on the individual market.

“McCain’s health care plan is centered around the idea that we’d be better off if more Americans bought health coverage on their own, rather than receiving it through a job or government program,” Edwards wrote. “But maybe since he has never purchased insurance in the individual market, he does not know the challenge it presents for Americans with preexisting conditions.”

Edwards added that neither she, under treatment for incurable cancer, nor McCain, who had been diagnosed with melanoma, would fare well in the individual market.

In a tidy summary of the health care debate, she wrote this:

“I have often argued that buying health insurance is not the same as purchasing a refrigerator or a microwave. Health insurance is not another consumer good for which everyone pays the same price. Sick people are more expensive to insure than healthy people, the old accrue more cost than the young. For this reason, Senator John McCain’s belief in the dysfunctional and discriminatory individual market is fundamentally at odds with the point of health insurance, which requires that we share risks and pool costs.”

Shared risk is the underpinning of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which Obama signed into law this year.

Insurers can no longer discriminate against people on the basis of health, gender, age or occupation. To make that feasible, everyone will be required to obtain an insurance policy either through their employer, through Medicare or Medicaid if they qualify, or through an insurance pool called an exchange.

Cumbersome as it is, the Affordable Care Act achieves Edwards’ goal. Americans who play by the rules can no longer be “left outside the clinic doors,” as she put it.

But as we know, Republicans in Congress are vowing to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. Or at least seriously undermine it.

They speak wistfully of “market-based solutions,” which would only hasten a return to the practices Edwards deplored — insurers turning people away or pricing coverage out of peoples’ reach.

The many tributes to Edwards this week almost universally describe her as a fighter. She would want her admirers to pick up the banner.

Contact your congressman. Get familiar with the many positive aspects of the Affordable Care Act.

Push back against opponents’ false descriptions of the law as a government boondoggle that will destroy the doctor-patient relationship. Patients who are denied or priced out of care don’t get to cultivate much of a bond with any physician.

Reject, in the strongest possible terms, efforts to roll back reform. Elizabeth Edwards would want it that way.

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