Saturday, August 1, 2009

Healthy Skepticism

By Stephen Lautens

July 30, 2009

For a long time I have believed that government has only three main things it should do – keep its citizens healthy, safe and educated. Everything else is extra.

Of course a lot of things flow from those three main jobs. Keeping people safe means having effective police and efficient courts. It also means having an army that can defend the country and our interests from threats. It means secure borders and safe streets.

Keeping people educated means having a well-funded school system and support for students and parents. It should broaden the mind and open children’s eyes to the many possibilities out there, and help them achieve whatever goals they are capable of reaching. It means keeping higher education affordable and accessible. Educated people are generally good citizens and good taxpayers, so everyone wins when people have the ability to contribute back to society at their own personal best level.

And keeping people healthy? We made a decision as a country some time ago that it was our moral and humanitarian duty to look after our sick and hurt as best we can, and that comes with a hefty price tag, but it is the right thing to do. It’s also our biggest expense, since health care is not cheap by its very nature and made more expensive by people living longer.

But if Canada believes government has a duty to keep its citizens healthy, safe and educated, there are those in the United States who believe that government’s job is only to provide people with the opportunity to make enough money to afford to be healthy, safe and educated.

The private health care companies that get rich in America are now fighting an all out war in the U.S. against a new proposal for universal health care. They have gone so far to recruit several Canadians for TV ads to tell their own private horror stories about problems with our “socialist” health care system.

Shona Holmes, a Canadian unhappy about waiting for health care in Canada, is featured on a commercial by the “Patients United Now” a front organization for the U.S. health care industry and a “Project of Americans for Prosperity Foundation”, which supports limited government and free markets. Tellingly, they also advocate pro-tobacco industry positions.

Of course it’s unfair to feature the few people who have had serious problems accessing health care in Canada and ignore the millions it helps, but this isn’t about fairness – it’s about cutting into HMO, drug and insurance company profits, which by any standard are enormous. The profits are huge because the cornerstones of American health care are “for-profit” businesses that provide medical care or drugs not on the basis of need, but on a cost-benefit analysis, denying coverage to people who need it most.

Many Americans - both rich and poor - support the idea that they should be taxed less and be left to make their own decisions about how to spend their money, whether it is on gated communities, private schools or private health care. In other words, the chance to strike it rich in America provides some people with the opportunity to be healthy, safe and educated. It also means that 46 million Americans can’t afford health care at all.

On the other hand, in Canada we believe that making people healthy, safe and educated is what provides opportunities in the first place. We may not always do it well, but at least we are committed to doing it.

© Stephen Lautens, 2009