Assuring health care makes nation stronger

Sen. Bernie Sanders recently unveiled his Medicare for All bill, proclaiming in a New York Times op-ed that health care is a “human right.” In a video on his website, he further frames access to medical care as “a right, not a privilege.”

The senator is correct. However, he may have trouble convincing skeptics because this language falls right into the well-established trenches of U.S. ideological battles.

When people refer to health care as a right, they imply that the benefits of receiving it go to individuals rather than to society as a whole. Talk of “rights,” “entitlement” and “privilege” cause debate in U.S. culture, often leading to gridlock. Conservatives have well-established rebuttals about the need for individual choice and responsibility.

But making sure people have the health care they need has much larger implications, as an experience from my life suggests.

Several years ago, I helped establish and direct a nonprofit organization that was a center for charity and justice efforts. It was a rewarding experience feeding the hungry, providing clothing to the less-fortunate, offering hospitality to immigrants and much more. The organization was blossoming in a part of town that was thirsty for neighborly help in action.

Today, the doors to this organization are closed.

Because of a cancer diagnosis, I needed a “regular” job that came with health coverage. It might have taken several years before this organization could have grown large enough to offer a salary with health benefits. I could live lean for a while but I could not wait for health coverage. The organization benefited hundreds of individuals and (dare I say) the whole city. It was heartbreaking to walk away from it.

I am a citizen with initiative and energy. I was willing to try out new ideas and take risks. Just imagine how many ideas, inventions, innovations and businesses are delayed or never fully realized because people must take unrelated jobs simply to secure health coverage? We all suffer when we make it difficult for our neighbors to share their gifts. In real life, real obstacles take a real toll on real people. When fellow citizens are secure in their life choices, everyone is better off. It makes for a safer, healthier, smarter, more advanced country that is a more competitive nation in the world market.

Like Sen. Sanders, I wish we could provide universal health care based solely on humanitarian reasons. But this is not going to melt the ice in this uniquely American discussion.

Providing health care to all is simply what a smart country does if it wants to stay competitive. It fosters an environment friendly to business and innovation. Like public roads and public education, health care provides a basic infrastructure so that we can all share our gifts and talents more broadly and without reservation. It’s the next logical step in the growth of a healthy society.

Frank Lesko, of northeast Ohio, is the director of Catholic-Evangelical relations at Glenmary Home Missioners and blogs at the Traveling Ecumenist. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary.



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