Op-Eds


Will we take care of our own?

By Jennifer Granholm, POLITICO

Where’re the eyes, the eyes with the will to see

Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy

Where’s the love that has not forsaken me

Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free

Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me

Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea

Wherever this flag is flown

We take care of our own.

— Bruce Springsteen
"We Take Care of Our Own"

You’d think the people camping out to get tickets were in line for Bruce Springsteen’s tour for his new album. But no, they were groupies for a ringside seat to the most important debate of our time. Tuesday, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments on this key question: Will we take care of our own?

In the three days of arguments, Tuesday is the most important. The court will decide what the role of government is in caring for our people. Boiled down, if you believe access to health care is a right, then you want the government to make it available to all. If you believe health care is a privilege, then each person earns their own and government’s role is minimal.

Does it get any more important than this? Any more fundamentally defining?

Even casual observers are caught up in this truly American moment. Recent comments on my Facebook page reflect the debate. Melissa W. writes: “Interesting, I have a job with health insurance but last time I checked I earned that job. Now I earn my paycheck and my health insurance… I don’t understand why people feel entitled to those same benefits they didn’t earn. .. If insurance coverage is a priority I suggest you find a job that provides it like I did.”

Melissa is one of the lucky ones. Working at a job with health coverage, she doesn’t have to worry about whether health care is a right or a privilege. Throughout the past decade, the number of employers that offer health insurance has dropped from nearly 70 percent in 2001 to only 53 percent now. The number of uninsured Americans grew from nearly 37 million to just under 50 million in roughly the same time.

And, Melissa may not know it, but her employer is already subsidizing those who haven’t “earned” the privilege of health care. News flash: The uninsured still get sick.

Does the no-government-role crowd think the uninsured are cancer-free? Does anyone believe that an uninsured parent with a seriously injured child won’t go to the emergency room? The cost, of course, is simply passed on from hospitals (the “cost of uncompensated care”) to the insured like Melissa, whose premiums have skyrocketed 131 percent from 1999 to 2009.

The question is whether there’s a more rational way to pay for their care, instead of via the most expensive route of subsidizing delayed treatment and emergency rooms through eye-popping insurance premium hikes on the rest.

For the other side, it’s back to Facebook. “Providing health care for everyone is a simple moral choice,” Laura G. writes, “that every country needs to make. It is very similar to a country deciding that all of its citizens should be educated. It is a simple moral choice that defines who we are as a nation.”

Indeed. Every other industrialized nation has a health care mandate — not only because it is the correct moral thing to do, it’s the correct business choice. They look at it rationally — and their health care costs are half of ours, they serve all citizens and achieve better outcomes. Best practices anyone?

But instead of “taking care of our own” rationally, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — and his new sidekick, the latest version of Mitt Romney — proposes in his new budget plan eliminating health care to the 30 million uninsured under the dreaded “Obamacare.”

No one says we don’t need reform to bring costs down, and the Affordable Care Act takes significant steps to do just that, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But simply throwing people off health care is not reform. It’s just plain old Social Darwinism, freshly steeped in tea.

If you believe we should take care of our own, as Springsteen sings, you believe that we owe a duty to one another — both a moral duty to the individual and a financial duty to our country. You understand that there are many people who cannot pull themselves out of their life circumstances.

Perhaps they were born with a disability. Perhaps they have aged and cannot work anymore. Perhaps they lost their job through no fault of their own and have had to take a job that pays less, or doesn’t offer health benefits. There are millions and millions of our fellow citizens who are on their knees. Chances are you know one already.

There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home. There ain’t no one hearing the bugle blowin’: We take care of our own.

The year The Boss was singing “Born in the USA,” another patriot was evoking what it means to be an American. At the 1984 Democratic Convention, then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo framed today’s choice, using the analogy of a wagon train:

“The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail. ‘The strong’ — ‘The strong,’ they tell us, ‘will inherit the land.’

“We Democrats believe in something else. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact.”

That’s the fundamental issue the Supreme Court will decide. Oh, sure, they won’t call it that. They’ll be listening to arguments on technical-sounding issues — the Commerce Clause, the Tax Injunction Act, the Severability Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause.

None of them have the words “the role of government” as their title. But when the court decides whether the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, that’s what they’re deciding: Will we take care of our own? It is the most fundamental issue of this political race, our Constitution and our nation.

It is the issue of our soul as Americans. 3/26/2012