Commentary: Health care should be for all

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT)
Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT) MCT

A fair number of people believe that health care is a privilege, not a right.

This from a reader who did not share my recently expressed consternation that people waited for as long as two days to be seen by doctors at a mobile clinic in Virginia:

I left a rural area of Kansas 40 years ago because there was no economic future there.

The people in Wise, Va., have made choices. Why does my government expect me to pay for their health care? I work 50-60 hours per week, buy my family health insurance and pay my taxes. And, yes, people in my tax bracket pay about 80 percent of the total income tax. The people standing in line are paying nothing for the health care they are getting and paying no income tax.

This from John Mackey, the chief executive of Whole Foods Market Inc., who proposed a series of "free-market" reforms in a piece in The Wall Street Journal:

A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That's because there isn't any. This "right" has never existed in America.

This from Republican members of the Missouri House, who, in their last session, shouted down a deal to accept $145.5 million from Missouri hospitals and the federal government and provide Medicaid coverage to 35,000 low-income adults:

It's welfare, not health care!

At the heart of the health-care-is-a-privilege argument is the belief that Americans are self-sufficient folks who should work hard, take care of themselves and their families, and not look to government for help. It's all about initiative.

That's a fine bedrock philosophy, but the size, expense and complexity of the health care system swamped it years ago. Initiative alone can't cover a catastrophic hospital bill or purchase a reasonable insurance policy for someone who had cancer treatments three years ago.

According to a recent study published by The American Journal of Medicine, medical costs figured into more than six of every 10 bankruptcies in 2007, and many of the people who filed had health insurance.

Recently I talked to a mom in Johnson County whose family was driven into bankruptcy because of medical costs for a chronically ill child. This is a household with two college-educated, industrious parents. The child’s high-maintenance illness caused them the loss of one income and continuing bills.

"We have great insurance, but even co-pays are around $700 a month," the mother said.

If we cherish initiative, what better way to encourage it than by providing universal access to health care?

It's a lot easier to be productive at work if you're able to afford an antibiotic for that sinus infection. And it’s pretty hard to pull yourself up by the bootstraps while you’re standing in line for two days waiting to get a tooth pulled.

Back before we got distracted by phantom "death squads" and fanciful speculation about the cutoff age for hip replacements, there was widespread agreement that we needed substantial reform to make health care accessible to all and to curb the ruinous inflation in medical costs.

A public option, competing alongside the for-profit health care system, is the clearest path to accomplishing those goals. It would provide a safe haven for people when initiative isn’t enough. At its best, it could offer a better, more comprehensive model for treating chronic diseases and pay doctors for results rather than the number of patients seen or procedures ordered.

Forget about whether universal access to health care is a right or a privilege. It's the only policy that makes sense. It's time for Democrats in Congress to get this job done. Show some initiative, why don’t you?