Thursday, March 25, 2010

Resurrection of Universal Health Care for America

Two weeks before the Easter Sunday when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion, U.S. House of Representatives passed with a narrow margin (219 Democrats to 212: 178 Republicans and 34 Democrats) the U.S. Senate Health Overhaul Bill from last Xmas Eve.  President Obama signed it into law two days later at the White House on Tues, March 23, the first universal health care legislation in American history.   

There were no big celebrations other than a brief speech for such a historical event.  There are many unfinished business and political and legal battles in coming weeks, months and years as democrats in Senate try to pass the companion amendments from the House.  Meanwhile, the President has begun the journey of convincing the skeptics and persuading the non-believers to increase the support and to mitigate possible negatives in the November mid-term election.  One thing for sure though, barring the unlikely event of an unfavorable ruling of the constitutionality of the bill by Supreme Court down the road, (near) universal health care is now the “law of the land”.  At last, U.S. “has arrived at the 20th century” (as one French news article put it) and joined all other industrialized nations to have an estimated 95% of its legal residents be covered by some health care plans.  For a detailed time line of the recent development of the health care reform, see e.g., the compilation by the Independent Blue Cross.  

It appears that President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deserve most of the credits.  They did not back down when the pundits, cynics and opponents declared the year-long effort was dead as Democrats lost the super-majority in the Jan 19th Special Election of Massachusetts (Republican Scott Brown was elected senator to fill the vacated seat from  Edward Kennedy’s death). They did not abandon the principal interlocking components of the proposed reform for this extremely complex social-political-economic problem when no consensus would ever be developed.   They did not scale back or move back the goal post when some supporters and believers thought salvaging what they could would be the only practical thing left to do.   They did not waver nor yield to pressure when many suggested graceful political exit under the cover of bipartisanship and when Tea Party and fringe groups made disruptive noises that hijacked the agenda and dominated the media for months.  Instead they worked hard to secure the needed compromise and agreement across Senate and House democrats and resurrected the bill successfully, recognizing this is the last chance to complete this top priority of president’s domestic policy.

Universal Health Care as a dream has eluded Americans for a century since President Teddy Roosevelt first proposed it and lost the 1912 Presidential election (as the candidate of short-lived  Progressive Party).  Since then, practically all 20th century American presidents of the Democratic party and Richard Nixon, a Republican, had tried and never got very far with it; see e.g., Tim Foley’s 2009 article.  There is a good reason - there are a number of legitimate, deep-rooted philosophical and ideological debates on this issue that unlike most others, touches directly on everyone’s life and nerve.  But time is running out as health care cost became a drag of the nation’s economy. 

As far as American’s subconscious goes, there are three difficult hurdles to overcome in getting most Americans to embrace easily the notion of universal health care.  They have been repeatedly used by the oppositions throughout this and previous political debates with mix of flaming populist arguments, scare tactics and genuine beliefs.  These three are: individual freedom vs. government intrusion, free-market capitalism vs. socialism, state rights vs. centralized federal power.  How many times have we seen any proposal of government involvement in health care reform has been construed as intrusion of government to individual’s right to choose and to the free-market even though the largely unregulated market has failed to produce necessary competitions to bring down the cost and when the disadvantaged are denied minimum access and care (e.g. for pre-existing conditions) without the society’s help?  The last argument is a legalistic one and will have to be resolved in court.  However it defies the logic to think that Congress cannot create legislations for the nation on cross-state matters.   The bottom line is the opposition simply wants status-quo and is not interested in changes.  All those arguments are merely arguments to slow down or to derail needed changes. 

The significance of this historic event cannot be understated.  When was the last time you saw a major social-political policy proposal was voted?  As President Obama himself put it when he spoke at the White House right after the House passed the bills late Sunday evening: “… This is what Change looks like…”  For those who thought he was a young and naive politician who was just full of ideals with rhetoric, and for those who thought “Yes, We Can” was just a campaign slogan, the passage of this bill has left no doubt about Obama’s determination for change and skills to govern.  His courage and the passing of health care reform alone will assure President Obama be one of the most important American presidents although it is still too early to talk about the outcomes and other accomplishments.

I don’t know if there will be sufficient mechanisms, tools, and balancing forces to bring down the escalating cost of health care.  But I do know one thing:  health care would have continued to spiral up out of control if we did not make drastic changes to the current system.  I am thrilled that the nation took such a giant step forward and demonstrated that significant reform is possible in American-style democratic society.  Most of all, I am happy that American people can accept the social responsibility of health care for all that I believe, is simply the moral and the right thing to do.

Talk to you soon!

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