Did you know in 1972, a government-run national health care program was established through Medicare to take care of Americans who had end-stage ren
October 2, 2009

Did you know in 1972, a government-run national health care program was established through Medicare to take care of Americans who had end-stage renal disease, even paying for transplants? And did you know Republicans supported it?

I was astounded, reading Jennifer Nix's "I Love My Socialist Kidney" in Salon. Nix concludes:

As I watch the cable news loops of all the vicious language and wild-eyed imagery aimed at killing healthcare reform, I can't help but be amazed that Medicare ESRD was ever passed. I wonder how so many Americans today can be made to believe that healthcare is "anti-Constitutional" or that a fascist/socialist (and, let's not forget, African) Obama wants to kill their grannies, but I am awestruck by the headstrong self-destruction of the Republican Party. There is no clearer proof of GOP decay than comparing the Republican leadership of the 1970s with those controlling the party today.

Republicans in the 1970s were on the side of healthcare for all Americans. In a message to Congress on Feb. 18, 1971, Nixon himself proposed the National Health Insurance Partnership Act. This was a moment in our history when most Americans believed some form of all-inclusive, national health insurance would soon be a reality. Republicans and Democrats alike were working hard to find the best way to make it happen. In 1972, a generation of pragmatic and compassionate Republicans voted in large numbers to help pass the Medicare ESRD Act. It was seen by legislators as a test case, to be followed by government insurance programs -- be they catastrophic or comprehensive -- for other diagnoses.

This never happened, of course, and right up until our summer of angry town halls, Medicare ESRD has remained what former Senate Finance Committee staffer James Mongan called "the last train out of the station for national health insurance."

Today's Republican leadership follows the lead of hate-speech blowhards and injects vitriol and proven lies into our national discourse, instead of engaging in honest negotiations over the best way to bring healthcare to all Americans. They are ginned up for an Obama defeat, by any means necessary -- good policy and the American people be damned.

If we don't get healthcare reform this time around, I have to wonder what will become of the programs caught in the middle, like Medicare ESRD. It's unknown at this point whether I'll need another transplant or long-term dialysis at some point, but it's highly likely. The bottom line is treatments for ESRD are expensive and ongoing. With this diagnosis, it's either dialysis or, if transplanted, expensive immuno-suppressant drugs for the rest of one's life. But because I have this benefit, when my fellow citizens with, say, cancer do not, it's hard not to feel some guilt.

This nation must face difficult questions. Will this society continue to be willing to bear the costs of an entitlement program for ESRD patients, as the market has proved that it will not if left to its own devices? Should we simply let ESRD patients die? Or do we believe that as a society, certain of us will develop catastrophic illnesses and that we all deserve health security? Is this "charity," as a conservative friend of mine suggests, or a society sharing the risk that any one of us could face illness and financial ruin tomorrow? Should the "right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" be interpreted literally? If so, shouldn't guaranteed healthcare be the right of every U.S. citizen? If the answer to that question is yes, shouldn't all of us -- Democrats, Republicans and Independents -- be working together to find the most effective and cost-efficient system for its delivery?

It remains to be seen whether Congress will pass healthcare reform this year. Like many before it, this effort may not succeed, and we'll remain, as Obama has said, "the only advanced democracy on earth -- the only wealthy nation -- that allows such hardships for millions of its people."

For now, I'm just grateful there was a time when Congress felt the moral imperative to provide a public health insurance option that allowed both my father and me to live.


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