Fixing healthcare and fixing the economy are two sides of the same coin

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“Fixing healthcare and fixing the economy are two sides of the same coin.” — Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)

As I ponder this editorial, the country is in the grip of its second day of government shutdown. I cannot help but be impressed with the prophetic insight of Sen. Wyden’s comment as I bear witness to the economic brinksmanship being played out by Congress upon the world stage over the fundamental issue of access to healthcare. The people’s business is presently on hold, all the more concerning because of the looming political fight over the nation’s debt ceiling, predicted to be reached by mid-October, which will have to be raised to avoid defaulting to creditors all over the world. Interestingly, readers of this editorial will have insight into how this allegory for a Greek tragedy has played out and how much damage has occurred to our economy from yet another self-inflicted wound.

            The debate over healthcare access is not an abstract concept for me personally. Presently I am not concerned about theoretical arguments over whether healthcare is a fundamental human right or only another example of bloated government and the “nanny state” intruding into areas that should be controlled by the economic forces of capitalism. Today I am not a Democrat or a Republican struggling with the “correct” interpretation of the Constitution. At the moment, I am not even a physician concerned with the impact the Affordable Care Act will have on my practice or my economic future as I near retirement from the federal medicine system. As I write this today, I am none of these things.

Today I am simply a father with a daughter who requires urgent surgery. I am waiting in a hospital waiting room, with many others, wrestling with the reality of placing my daughter in the hands of a surgical team (strangers), hoping for the best outcome, while struggling with the fact that, despite all of our medical advances, things still can go very wrong in medicine. There is nothing abstract or confusing for me about the need for universal access to affordable quality healthcare as I sit here in this waiting room. While I would not wish my present situation on any child or any parent of a child, I wonder if this experience might clarify the muddled thinking that seems to have infected so many of our congressional representatives. I wonder how each representative, regardless of party affiliation, would vote on this issue if they could spend just 15 minutes in my shoes – today.

Honestly, I am neither for nor against Obamacare. As I understand this complex legislation — and I admit a loose understanding at best — there are elements of this law that make sense and other elements less so. It is estimated that approximately one-third of all Americans are either uninsured or inadequately insured for healthcare in this country (www.pbs.org/healthcarecrisis/uninsured.html). Naturally, the millions who are not covered tend to postpone or avoid routine care such as annual check-ups and immunizations. For many who live outside of the insured American healthcare system, the fear of disease or injury rests like the sword of Damocles over their financial futures. Medical debt is the No. 1 cause for Americans to declare bankruptcy.

We still care for these people but only after the disease or condition has become so overwhelming that the costs become excessive and the outcomes far less desirable. Fact is, we have a socialized system of medicine in this country (despite what the political pundits would have you believe), it just happens to be one of the most expensive and inefficient systems of the industrialized nations.

It is estimated that more than 23 million Americans will be able to obtain health insurance under the Affordable Health Care Act. Despite the laments of many in Congress that the plan will bankrupt our nation and is bad for business, it is hard to imagine, no matter how flawed the bill may be, that the proposed system could possibly be any worse than our present, failing system. Then again, I am not an economist and I have already fessed up to my naiveté concerning this legislation. That is OK because I am approaching this issue, today, as a father. At this difficult time, at least I do not have to contemplate the possibility of financial devastation for my family. Because I am a beneficiary of the federal healthcare system, I can focus on my daughter today. Explain to me, as a father, how we can tolerate forcing so many of our citizens to have to choose between the health of a family member or financial ruin?

Obamacare likely has many shortcomings and unrecognized flaws. Then again, I am unaware of any perfect legislation coming from our Congress of late. Today, as a father, adding more than 23 million Americans to the rolls of the insured seems like a good idea. As the law is implemented, I am sure there will be unexpected problems and consequences. I imagine considerable additional legislative effort will be required to deal with these issues. Congress will have to work together to legislatively evolve the Affordable Health Care Act into a system that provides the coverage Americans need within a sustainable economic model. Shutting down the government does not seem like an intelligent first step in this vital process. 

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