Best For America?

I received an email that was sent to her friends list by a good friend of mine who is very concerned about what she insists on calling “Obamacare.” She had a list of questions about the Affordable Care Act (ACT) ending with the question: “Is all this going to work out and be the best for America??????”  I dare to say her concerns reflect those of a great many other Americans an alarming number of whom seem to have pushed the panic button and are convinced we are on the verge of Armageddon.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on the Affordable Care Act. By no means. But I can read and I have checked a number of items. In spite of the glitches that have shown up in the early days — inevitable some would say — there are a number of questions that have yet to be answered. But, on balance, it would seem that the Act is a good idea though it has a great many rough edges yet to be ironed out. We must remember that this country is one of the very few “developed” nations with inadequate health care. Indeed, according to a recent story on PBS, health care costs in the United States are the highest, per person, in the world. And, despite the fact that for those who can afford it the care is outstanding, it is not clear that as a nation we are getting the most for our money. As the story relates, in this country

  • There are fewer physicians per person than in most other OECD countries. In 2010, for instance, the U.S. had 2.4 practicing physicians per 1,000 people — well below below the OECD average of 3.1.
  • The number of hospital beds in the U.S. was 2.6 per 1,000 population in 2009, lower than the OECD average of 3.4 beds.
  • Life expectancy at birth increased by almost nine years between 1960 and 2010, but that’s less than the increase of over 15 years in Japan and over 11 years on average in OECD countries. The average American now lives 78.7 years in 2010, more than one year below the average of 79.8 years.

The ACT is designed to lower costs and extend health care to most, if not all, of those who could not otherwise afford it. This, it seems to me, is a lofty idea and the overriding principle that should always be kept in mind when weighing costs and benefits. In the end, what matters is what kind of country we want to live in: one that worries more about the businesses that might suffer because of the enforced costs of extending health care to employees or one that cares about its citizens and their health regardless of the monetary costs.

We know, for example, that a great many young people who would otherwise have no health insurance can now be included in their parents’ insurance — until they are 26 years of age. My understanding is that thousands of young people are now covered who were not covered previously. And given the growing number of young people who are unable to find employment, this is an unmitigated blessing. Further, Medicade coverage is extended under this plan, thereby allowing a great many of the poor and elderly to receive care that they were not able to receive previously. In fact, the number of uninsured under this plan will be reduced by 32 million, a fact that cannot be ignored.

The number of states that have opted out of their commitment to the ACT has reduced estimates of the eventual financial benefits to the nation from $200 billion to $84 billion. Still, every little bit helps when it comes to the budget deficit. Despite the benefits in the form of a reduction to the national debt, however, there will be costs to small businesses — which concern my friend — and these must be factored in, since the Act requires that businesses employing more than 50 people must provide them with health care. This has resulted in all sorts of shenanigans by companies — cutting the hours of their employees to reduce the number of full-time employees, refusing to employ more than 49 full-time people, and the like.  The fact that small businesses that operate on a low profit margin will be required to assist their employees in paying for their health care will, in fact, place a burden on those businesses and in the end force some of them to close down, and it does appear to be the weakest link in the Affordable Care Act.  But, given the fact that an estimated 200,000 small businesses closed down during the recent recession, it must be admitted that small businesses are a risk and always have been and one suspects that with careful planning and intelligent cost-cutting fewer will go under as a direct result of the ACT than have been predicted by the knee-jerkers among us. In any event, one must wonder why a federal mandate is required to insist that employers take care of their employees’ health needs, which many regard as one of our basic human rights. In any event, the plan has generated more heat than light among the fearful due to its complexities.

And there’s the rub. My friend’s email stems from her fear that this plan will bring America to its collective knees. She starts with FDR’s famous quote that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” which is a good thing to keep in mind. Any plan this encompassing that involves inevitable glitches and also involves controversial elements such as mandatory contraception will raise the hackles of the nervous element among us — and that element is growing as those who have political axes to grind have learned how easy it is to control the population through fear — of terrorists, or increased taxation, or sex education in the schools. But as I said above, it comes down to what sort of country we want to call our own: one that cares about the health of its citizens or one that cares more about “the bottom line.”

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My Friend Danny

I met “Danny” over forty years ago when we first moved to this little town. He taught math and science in the local high school and he loved to play chess. He worked for a superintendent named Brundleson the kids called “the Nazi.” Brundleson liked to brag that he “ran a tight ship.” Every day Danny and the other teachers would have to walk in to the man’s office and smile and greet him with a handshake. If any teacher dared to utter a word of criticism at any point, he or she was gone. Danny wanted to start a chess club and wasn’t allowed to do so as the parents would think they were doing drugs, Brundleson said. Danny wanted to take his biology students across the road to examine pond life in a small lake nearby, but he was not allowed to because of the danger of crossing the road. Yeah, a “tight ship.”

Anyway, Danny lasted a couple of years and then moved away and after a year of travel he ended up in Appleton, Wisconsin teaching math in a middle school and, with his wife, running an “ABC” house that boarded students from around the country who were being deprived of an opportunity to get a good education by virtue of their social circumstances; they were transferred to cities like Appleton, Wisconsin. Denny and his wife took care of the eight students in addition to their full-time jobs. They were parents, tutors and friends.

As you may be starting to figure out, Danny was one who has given of himself all his life. He is one of the gentlest, most caring people I have ever met. He finds himself by losing himself in the lives of other people. After forty years in Wisconsin, he retired and decided to walk the Appalachian Trail — the whole trail from bottom to top. And he did it. After that he moved to Arkansas and started his retirement. But he read that an “Alternative School” for disadvantaged students needed teachers so he decided to go back to work. He has done that for eight years, working from 7:00 A.M. until 4:30 P.M. each week day, teaching math at all levels, breaking up fights, taking weapons from angry boys, counseling them, and generally being their friend. His wife has been after him to quit as the job is dangerous: many of the kids he works with are marginal criminals; all are “problem kids” that are sent to the schools because they don’t “fit in” anywhere else. Or they have been let out on parole and one condition of their freedom is attending school. It is dangerous work, indeed. But Danny feels it is important and he doesn’t see retirement in his future any time soon even though he is already drawing Social Security.

The man is one of the most balanced people I have ever met. To be sure, things bother him. He is concerned about politics and global warming. But he tends to channel that concern and focus on what he can take care of — the problem at hand. He never seems to get riled up. He is calm and collected. I expect that explains his success with troubled kids. He is like an oasis in a desert. It’s what attracts people to him, and he has many friends. But above all else, he is a person who has spent his life giving himself to others. And it seems to make him happy. Perhaps that is the secret: we benefit most by giving ourselves to others. It sounds selfish, but it is not: it is the heart of altruism — and Christian love.

Random Acts

There is a part of me that gets very angry when I read and hear about the failings of my fellow human beings, their tendency toward self-absorption and lack of concern about the world around them or about other people. But every now and again I tumble across random acts of human kindness and genuine love and I take heart. I have mentioned Phil Mickelson who shares some of his immense wealth with others less fortunate than himself. That is certainly admirable. I am also aware that Magic Johnson has been tireless in his efforts to help the people in the inner city in Los Angles. He is certainly one of my heroes, especially when we read about so many professional athletes who spend their money on more cars, larger homes, piercings and tattoos, and so often seem to be violent and abusive.

I recall with special fondness the sight on TV of a man reaching up in the stands to catch a foul ball at a baseball game. His 4 or 5-year-old daughter is sitting next to him and after he catches the ball he hands it to his daughter — who promptly tosses the ball back on to the field! Rather than toss the little girl onto the field after the ball in anger and frustration, as one might expect, the man reaches down and embraces the little girl, who seems so pleased with herself, and gives her a big kiss. A lovely moment indeed, and shown repeatedly on ESPN for several weeks thereafter — as it should be.

But I have friends, we all do, who take time out of their lives to give to others, to volunteer in soup kitchens, or the hospital, or even at the golf course. It helps out, it involves sacrifice and giving of time and effort to make the lives of others more pleasant — or more endurable. I have a blog buddy, Jennifer, who takes time out of her busy life not to regale us with personal anecdotes, as so many bloggers seem to be doing, but to share news with her readers in an effort to make them more aware and get them thinking about some of the more pressing problems in our world — because she cares. I also have a close friend who has had his own terrible times and spends hours now counseling others who face the same traumas and fears he has managed to work through himself.

Indeed, there are good people on this planet along with those who simply don’t see beyond their own noses and who ignore others in their pursuit of pleasure and wealth. The latter group is the larger one, I am convinced. But they share this increasingly crowded planet with others who really care and who are given to acts of random kindness. I must keep reminding myself.