Many times over the past several months, I have opened a newspaper or tuned into a show to hear opponents of health care reform say that it’s not that they oppose universal health care – they just don’t want to pay for it. Why, they argue, should they have to pay higher taxes when they are perfectly satisfied with the way the current system benefits them?
Would the same attitude prevail if the debate suddenly shifted to the subject of that most basic of entitlements, mandatory education? After all, public education is considered a right for every single child in America – not a privilege like health care.
It cost approximately $519 billion to educate almost 50 million public school students just during this most recent school year – or an average of $10,418 per student. Educating our children is not cheap and yet, quite rightly, no one has seriously proposed that we put an end to the financing of public education.
For American children, school attendance is a mandate. Public schools are not considered “charity education,” but rather a fundamental right to be enjoyed by the rich and poor among us. Furthermore, there is no evidence that a robust public school system crowds out private schools. But this is the specious argument being made by those who want to dupe the American people into believing the current status quo is appropriate when it comes to our health care system.
Opponents of health care reform argue that they should not have to pay higher taxes to provide a public option for those who otherwise could not afford private insurance. The same could be said for seniors, childless taxpayers or parents of private school children. Why, after all, should they have to pay for a service from which they derive no tangible benefit? And yet every single taxpayer must contribute to public education, regardless of whether he or she has a child attending local public schools.
But, say the critics, our health care system is the envy of the world. Why else would foreign leaders flock to our hospitals for cancer treatment? Consider it the Phillips Andover model: foreign leaders also send their kids to elite private schools, but I have never heard of a Saudi prince attending a public school in Peoria. Yet school children in Peoria and all over the country have access to public education at taxpayer expense.
The metrics for assessing our national education system are not measured, after all, by scores at elite private schools. Why should national health care delivery standards be measured by the recovery rate of those treated at the Mayo Clinic?
Unlike our current health care system, we do not stop at the emergency room door when educating our kids. It would be rightly viewed as preposterous to demand that those who could not afford private schools stay home until they really, really need to learn to read – and then throw them into an intensive one or two day reading class, after which they are sent home until they really, really need to learn how to do long division.
Yet this is exactly how the current system treats the uninsured among us. Instead of spending money upfront to buy a smoke detector, they are forced to wait until flames are consuming the house before calling the fire department. By then, if the house were salvageable at all, it would cost much more to fix.
The cost of emergency room care for the uninsured is, of course, borne by the taxpayers whose money funds charity care and by insured families, who on average have to pay a hidden tax of $1,017 in higher insurance premiums.
There is no free lunch.
As a nation, we appreciate the fundamental need to have an educated population and are willing to spend to achieve that goal. Yet, access to basic, affordable health care is curiously denied to millions of Americans because it is somehow considered a luxury for which others should not have to pay.
Legislators who can find room in the budget for all sorts of things somehow can’t muster the courage to ensure that everyone has the ability to walk into a doctor’s office for a physical without worrying about bankruptcy.
What other budget priority can possibly be more vital than ensuring that every American has at least basic access to care that could prevent catastrophic illness?
After all, as the saying goes, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.
Julie Roginsky is a CNBC contributor who has extensive experience in government, politics and public relations on both the federal and state levels including serving as the Washington communications director for former Senator Jon Corzine.