The Truth, Mainly - 03/12/2007

A Case for Socialized Medicine
by Leon Satterfield

I have an alarmingly long list of phobias, any one of which can wake me up in a cold sweat at 2 a.m. The least terrifying of my nightmare fears has to do with a '57 Chevy that won't start in the middle of the Sahara desert on a really hot day.

A more scary one involves the U.S. Army losing my discharge papers and sending a couple of MPs to my house at 2:15 a.m. to drag me off kicking and screaming to the nearest infantry training base where I'll have to do infinite numbers of push-ups to make up for being AWOL since 1956.

And lots more phobias that I can't talk about in public.

You get the idea.

But at about the time I hit my 70th birthday, even scarier nightmares descended on me: Male nurses come into our bedroom, tie me down to a stretcher and haul me off to a hospital. When I ask them what's wrong with me, they say "We can't tell you that, but it's going to be very painful and very expensive and your medical insurance won't cover it. We won't be able to cure you, but you'll have to sell your house and your car and cash in all your retirement funds to pay your hospital bill."

And that's when my wife, bless her soul, gives me an elbow in the ribs and tells me to stop whimpering and wake the hell up so she can get some sleep.

I thought of that recurring dream when I read a piece by Robert Pear in last Monday's New York Times.

It's about Vicki H. Readling, a 50-year-old real estate agent in North Carolina who makes about $60,000 a year, but who's no longer able to afford health insurance.

That's because she had cancer in 2005 and as a result her 2006 health insurance cost went up to more than $27,000 a year. More, she says, than she can afford.

She remembers the New Year's Eve party a few hours before her insurance expired:

"Everybody was saying 'Happy New Year.' But I remember going straight to bed and lying down scared to death because I knew that at that very minute, after midnight, I was without insurance. I was kissing away a bad year of cancer. But I was getting ready to open up to a door of hell…. I don't know which was worse, being told I had cancer or finding out that I could not get insurance."

Now there's a real nightmare. Except it doesn't go away when she wakes up.

We're a pretty rich nation compared to most others. So why should we have nightmares about how to pay or medical bills?

Especially when there are countries whose citizens have much lower average incomes than we have, but who can afford medical care that Ms. Readling can't. You know why: their countries' governments pay the medical bills.

You know: National Health Insurance. Single Payer Programs. Or—brace yourselves—SOCIALIZED MEDICINE!!!

It's what most of our friendly allies already have. An incomplete list: the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Japan, Belgium, Italy, France, Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Ireland, Israel, Holland, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden. Among others.

You know, those backward countries whose citizens go barefoot and make some of the best cars we buy in the U.S.

Did you know that here in America there's a group of some 14,000 doctors who call themselves "Physicians for a National Health Program"? They tell us that Ms. Readling isn't alone, that the number of uninsured Americans—even those making more than $75,000 annually—is growing every year.

They also tell us that "the only solution to the rising number of uninsured and underinsured is a single-payer national health insurance program, publicly financed but delivered by private doctors and hospitals. Such a program could save more than $400 billion annually in administrative waste, enough to provide high quality coverage for all and halt the erosion of the current private system."

I know, I know, that bogeyman phrase "socialized medicine" gives lots of Americans the heebie jeebies. But they might go away after you compare socialized medicine hospital bills to what we've got now.

And if you find all that too optimistic to be plausible, here's another argument:

Let's get our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and use the money we've been spending in those places to get over our phobia against socialized medicine. Let's trade in our casualty-producing war for our physical, mental, and moral health.

And thereby letting me get rid of at least one of my phobias. Maybe one of yours too.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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