Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation
It’s impossible for me to allow Memorial Day to pass without thinking of the sacrifices my father and his generation made to build better lives for future generations like mine. And so it is today, Memorial Day 2011, when my thoughts turn to what he dreamed for me and his grandchildren and how glad I am that he isn’t here today to see how woefully I failed to protect what he fought for.
My dad’s America was full of future possibility and the social and political pressures that advanced civil rights. Even if he was a fiscal conservative, the energy of the nation and for our family was one of anticipation of better things to come. At least in the early part of my adulthood, I thought it possible to work hard and live a decent life. But the wheels came off those modest ambitions very early.
For the past several years, I have been engaged in the fight for healthcare justice. What began as a nagging concern and increasingly costly necessity while my kids were still growing up evolved into a full-fledged crisis in less than a decade. I couldn’t keep up very well. I spent the prime years of my career angry and frightened as I chased jobs with good benefits, including good health insurance. Those jobs sometimes left me exhausted, crabby and resentful of what might have been, and daily life was less happy than I had ever imagined within our household. I am sure the kids suffered not only because of the hours I was away working but also because of the less happy moments when I was home. I felt like I was trapped in a vice from which I could not escape.
Holidays would come. Holidays like Memorial Day and the kick-off of summer and what should have been more fun. My dad’s America in which the family went to the community parade, honored its fallen soldiers and surviving veterans, and retreated to a large, family barbeque gave way to holidays much less tradition-filled and much more commercial.
That seems to have been the trend with everything in our nation. In almost every area of our human endeavors we have commercialized traditional days and activities and needs. I cannot think of a day or night any more that is completely free of money-making or money-spending potential. And the pressure to engage in financial activity is everywhere all the time. No rest. No time for reflection on the past or imaginings of the future. The average working person in America in 2011 would have a hard time completely disengaging for a real holiday of any kind. Most jobs allow scant vacation or paid leave time or holiday time or the jobs that are good enough to offer some personal paid time off often come with the reality that actually taking that time off signals a lack of full commitment to one’s employer or position. And getting sick is definitely a detriment to any sort of career growth. Working sick and working hurt is a reality in America in 2011.
My dad’s lifetime of work resulted in a good home, modest vacations, and holidays with family, with most of his evenings and weekends free to take care of his personal life. Mine has never been that way. Holidays have often been a reminder of what I have failed to do and with family scattered all over the country, like so many families now are, holidays rarely include get-togethers with anyone.
When I think about how the commercialization of the U.S. healthcare system has driven my own life and career, it is even more important to me that we fix the mess. Recent days have given us hope as Vermont has begun to place the building blocks for a sane health system based on healthcare as a human right. If Vermonters can keep the momentum going and if they can pass additional legislation to keep advancing their work, they may well become the first state in the nation to provide access to healthcare that is not so intricately tied to one’s job that it stifles both employees and employers. That would be amazing. But it isn’t there yet, and powerful economic interests will fight against that sort of building block legislation spreading to other states or regions.
Other states may also develop progressively financed healthcare models to provide a single standard of high quality care to all of their residents, as several states, including California and Pennsylvania, have single-payer bills in the works. Creating a single risk pool for the financing of healthcare as a human right is just sound fiscal policy, and as costs rise ever higher, more states will look to plans like Vermont’s and California’s and Pennsylvania’s to solve their building fiscal pressures related to healthcare.
Until the healthcare mess is fixed, more and more people this Memorial Day are suffering without access to needed care. For them there are no building blocks that provide access to a doctor or a treatment if the money doesn’t come with them. Their lives are expendable when deemed too expensive. And the measures of who is too costly to receive treatment are based on status and wealth alone; the commercial rationing of healthcare continues unabated on Memorial Day 2011 in America.
It is hard for me to accept that we’ve allowed so much of the wrong sort of pressure to overcome the clear and genuine and hard-fought aspirations of generations past, like my dad’s, for future Americans. If we really honored our elders and our fathers and mothers and if we really sought to remember those who have sacrificed for our freedom, I don’t think we’d settle for lives of quiet desperation of chasing the almighty dollar and supporting a healthcare system that values human life so little that patients are just widgets in the engine of profit and not human beings at all.
I do not believe that is what my dad fought to protect as he served in the U.S. Army in World War II. The American way of life he hoped I would see was supposed to build on those sacrifices and make it a better place where the chance to be what you want to be is not restricted by those whose powerful interests would overrun individual freedom. Clearly, a healthcare system as ours is today has little to do with that sort of freedom and everything to do with commercial and financial power. Until that is changed for good, the promise of my dad’s hard work and determination will be but a memory.
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