After a year of contentious debate, misinformation, and racially tinged opposition, President Obama has delivered on his campaign promise to reform America’s healthcare system. The passage of healthcare reform is being called a political victory for President Obama and his fellow Democrats and should lay to rest any speculation that the pragmatic, consensus-seeking President does not have the guts for a bare-knuckled political brawl. The first significant healthcare legislation in the U.S. since the 1965 passage of Medicare, the federal health-insurance program for Americans over the age of 65, the new law is being hailed as “historic”. But as a Ghanaian raised in the U.S., I don’t understand why the incremental reform brought by this bill has taken so long and been so bitterly opposed.
The United States has long lagged behind other Western nations in the area of healthcare. Other Western countries such as Canada, Germany and Great Britain have provided some form of universal healthcare for several years now. Even Ghana, a nation with far fewer economic resources than the U.S., enacted the National Health Insurance Scheme in 2003. While the new law will provide health insurance to 32 million uninsured Americans, it does not provide universal healthcare. Bitter opposition to reform and a reflexive aversion to anything that might be seen as a victory for President Obama caused many to lose sight of the pressing need for something to be done about an out of control healthcare system which negatively affected every American taxpayer. There was so much vitriolic opposition to healthcare reform that protesters took to the streets in angry mobs, armed with just enough inaccurate propaganda about the legislation to make them really, really angry. Egged on by politicians whose sole agenda is to oppose President Obama, some of these “activists” marched on Washington, jeered at lawmakers, hurled racist and homophobic slurs at lawmakers, and even sent death threats. Some derided the notion of government provision of health insurance as socialism, a misapprehension of political theory meant to demonize the opposition rather than propose solutions to what all acknowledge is a serious problem. Others have legitimate questions about the role of government and concerns about whether government involvement will lead to burdensome interference with their healthcare. Some of this skepticism can be traced to the American value favoring rugged individualism. If America is the land of opportunity, there also exists within the culture a belief that people should do for themselves and not look to the government for a handout. But the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality ignores the fact when it comes to access to healthcare, ordinary people virtually powerless against predatory insurance companies, did not even have boots. And while there are arguably a number of jobs that government should not take on, it seems to me that it is a basic function of government to make sure that medical care is available to everyone, not just people who can afford it.
Supporters of healthcare reform were not motivated solely by compassion. Reform was necessary for the economic health of this country. High medical bills are the number one cause of bankruptcy in America, and with the economy continuing to struggle, even middle class Americans could be just one major illness away from financial ruin. People without health insurance do not get preventive care and often rely on expensive emergency room visits for healthcare. When they can’t afford to pay, those costs are passed on to others in the form of higher fees and costs, which leads to higher insurance premiums for people who do have health insurance. In the ten years prior to healthcare reform, insurance companies raised their premiums by a shocking 131 per cent, all the while finding ways to deny coverage to people when they get sick and actually need to use the health insurance they have paid for. Even President Obama has told the story of his own mother, who even as she lay dying of cancer, had to fight with her insurance company to pay her medical bills.
It is incomprehensible to those from countries where high-quality medical care is often not available that people living in the U.S. would be denied access to medical care. Ghana is a progressive, peaceful and stable country that is a leader in sub-Saharan Africa. But it has far fewer resources to devote to health care than the United States. I myself have family members who have suffered greatly from health problems that would be easily treatable in the United States. Yet the need for medical care has become so dire in some American communities that when a volunteer organization that provides free medical care in developing nations set up tent clinics, hundreds of people camped out overnight, desperate for the chance to see a doctor. Many of these individuals were middle class individuals who just could not afford the high cost of private health insurance. And I will never forget the 12 year old boy from Maryland who died when bacteria from an infected tooth spread to his brain. His mother did not have dental insurance and could not afford to pay $80 to have the tooth removed.
I applaud President Obama for everything he did to bring healthcare reform and admire the resolve he showed in practically staking his presidency on it. And I think that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who helped shepherd the legislation through Congress, is Wonder Woman. But, I recently read that the United States defense budget is almost as much as the defense budget of the entire rest of the world combined. It is unconscionable that in a country so rich, there are those who find it acceptable for their fellow citizens to be without access to healthcare. To paraphrase Vice-President Joseph Biden’s candid congratulations to the President at the bill signing on its head, I wonder “What was the big [expletive deleted] deal?”