A question of character

You wouldn't guess it by looking at the cover (with its close-up of an electrical plug and the screaming headline "The Case for Killing Granny"), but the September 21 Newsweek has an excellent article on the subject of health care in the U.S. In "No Country for Sick Men," T.R. Reid explains what he learned about health-care systems around the world when he reported on the topic for Frontline. He sums it up by quoting Princeton professor Uwe Reinhardt: "The fundamental truth about health care in every country...is that national values, national character, determine how each system works."As Reid explains, the developed democracies of the world have very different solutions to the problem of providing health care for their people (they differ on who provides, what's covered, what's excessive, and so on). But they all agree that every citizen has a right to basic health care. All, that is, but the United States.

The design of any country's health-care system involves political, medical, and economic decisions. But the primary issue for any health-care system is, as President Obama made clear last week, a moral question: should a rich society provide health care to everyone who needs it? If a nation answers yes to that moral question, it will build a health-care system like the ones in Britain, Germany, Canada, France, and Japan, where everybody is covered. If a nation doesn't decide to provide universal coverage, then you're likely to end up with a system where some people get the finest medical care on earth in the finest hospitals, and tens of thousands of others are left to die for lack of care. Without the moral commitment, in other words, you end up with a system like America's.

When President Obama spoke to Congress last week, he quoted Ted Kennedy, who wrote: "What we face... is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country." Reid's article is simple and not at all polemical. But the information he lays out makes it harder to turn away from that stark assessment.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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