Health Care and Ghosts of War

Speaking in a time of war, Martin Luther King Jr. said: "Somehow this madness must cease."

Forty-one years later, young soldiers are returning to the United States from terrifying zones of carnage. The old claims of a justified war have melted away. So have the promises of a humane society back home.

Statistics about the war dead tell us very little about human realities. And familiar downbeat numbers about health care — 47 million Americans with no health insurance, perhaps an equal number woefully under-insured — tell us very little about the actual consequences or other options.

"The shocking facts about health care in the United States are well known," Yes! Magazine noted in the autumn of 2006. "There’s little argument that the system is broken. What’s not well known is that the dialogue about fixing the health care system is just as broken."

That’s an apt description. For all the media focus and political rhetoric on health care, the mainline discourse is stuck in a corporate-friendly rut. But there are signs that a movement for a rational, humanistic health care system in this country is now gaining strength.

A few hours after writing these words, I’ll be at a large demonstration in San Francisco. The lightning rod for this historic June 19 protest is a national meeting of America’s Health Insurance Plans, an outfit that cheerily pitches itself as "a national trade association representing nearly 1,300 member companies providing health benefits to more than 200 million Americans."

As it happens, this meeting of America’s Health Insurance Plans got underway just as news broke that the congressional "leadership" has devised a formula to fully fund more war. "Democratic and GOP leaders in the House announced agreement Wednesday on a long-overdue war funding bill they said President Bush would be willing to sign," the Associated Press reported. The bill would "provide about $165 billion to the Pentagon to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for about a year."

There’s a lot of profit in death. Under the guise of national security. And under the guise of health care.

Today, across the United States, people are dying because they don’t have access to health care. But policy solutions are available. In Congress, about 90 co-sponsors are backing H.R. 676, a bill to provide "comprehensive health insurance coverage for all United States residents." Call it whatever you like — "single payer" or "improved Medicare for all" or "universal health care with choice of providers and no financial barriers." What it adds up to is the policy option of treating health care as the human right that it is.

In the latest edition of "Health Care Meltdown," author C. Rocky White identifies himself as "a conservative Republican who has always held an entrepreneurial ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ free-market philosophy." A longtime physician, White describes "the frustration I began to experience while trying to provide compassionate, quality health care in the context of a market in which the accustomed rules of business economics don’t apply."

Dr. White immersed himself in research on health care policy and finance. Then he pored through reams of the latest data on the tradeoffs of reform options. "No matter how I turned the cube," he writes, "the answer never changed. That answer was nearly impossible for me, a free-market Republican, to accept."

Here are Dr. White’s two key conclusions in his own words:

* "Until we remove the motive of profit from the financing of health care, we cannot and we will not resolve our current health care crisis."

* "Any group that proposes reform policy that maintains the use of for-profit insurance companies in a so-called free market is being driven by one single motive — to protect the golden coffers of their share of the $2 trillion cash cow!"

Dr. White adds: "To continue down this road is paramount to suggesting that we privatize our fire and police services and turn them into for-profit organizations. You do that and people will die — just like they are dying now under our current health care system!"

Grotesquely, the insurance and hospital industries at the center of health care in the United States are, in effect, profiting from priorities that condemn many people to death and many more to avoidable suffering.

Meanwhile, corporate enterprises continue to make a killing from U.S. military expenditures now in the vicinity of $2 billion per day.

During a wartime speech in 1969, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist George Wald said: "Our government has become preoccupied with death, with the business of killing and being killed."

The preoccupation continues.

"When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people," Martin Luther King observed, "the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

Still, somehow, this madness must cease.