Friday, October 9, 2009

The Face

The reason I started this blog was seeing my friends, neighbors and relatives suffer without affordable, comprehensive health insurance -- but there's another reason, I think, that it seems like such a serious responsibility to me that we all cooperate to provide that insurance.

I experienced an incident in China about five years ago that has made the fight for a public option, and for real, affordable health care for all Americans seem critical, immediate, and crucial. China is controlled by its communist government, but their health care system is considerably more influenced by the free market even than ours in the United States, and (partially due to limited resources) they don't have guarantees we have such as the emergency room mandate, guaranteed basic health care for seniors, or care for the poor.

My partner and I were traveling in Dandong in northeast China, and were coming back to our hotel one night when we saw a couple on a motorcycle run over an older man on a bicycle who was making a left turn. It was dark, but not late, and there were about fifteen or so people on the street. She ran over to see if he was okay; I started trying to get passers-by or people working in shops to call an ambulance; the couple on the moped, who had been knocked off it, got up and fled.

I couldn't get anyone to place the call, or even to lend me their phone so that I could make the call in my half-broken Chinese. Who will pay for it, they said? We'll be responsible if we call an ambulance. They'll trace my phone. I can't call from my business, because they'll fire me for putting them at risk.

I was essentially having a health insurance policy debate. They can't make you pay, I said, they'll pay. Who is they, they said. Everybody pays, I said. The city keeps the hospital open. The city will pay. The city won't pay.

Sadly, they were right and I was wrong -- there was no system in place to help this man, and no community support to help those watching him do the right thing.

What I didn't have to do -- what too few of us who are having this debate ever do -- is what my partner did: stay with the man lying there waiting in the street, his bike twisted underneath him, ribbons of his face hanging from his jaw, trying to breathe through the blood.

Waiting for his neighbors to make the call. Waiting for me. Running out of time to wait while we figured out who is responsible and what we should do.

It was one incident in an enormous city in an enormous country -- only fifteen people saw it start to finish -- but if you did see it, if you had stood there, helpless, waiting for nothing, it would be as clear to you as it is to me. The health of our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and children is our responsibility. When a man dies who could have lived, it diminishes us all. We can shirk our responsibility -- can get up in Congress and say that we don't have the money or we don't like the government -- but we can't escape it. 44,000 Americans will die this year because they lack health insurance. You and I may not have seen it happen, but it is happening, and until we take responsibility for ourselves, our communities, and our nation, it will continue to happen.

We're the people on the roadside: we look away from the suffering around us, because we feel helpless to do anything about it. But we're not helpless. Public option legislation is our best chance to provide real protections and real care to people at affordable prices. We are so close -- today, with just a few Senate votes between us and the change that we need -- we have come so far from the days when disinformation (death panels! socialism!) and apathy dominated the debate. We can keep up the pressure -- increase it -- and we can have a strong, national public option. But it will not be given to us; we have got to take it.

The injured, the sick, and the suffering wait for you and for me; they've waited for years. What are you going to do? Who is responsible?


  1. Well said! It is very disturbing to hear of anyone suffering like that. The anger inside of us when we see that kind of thing is worth listening to. It's there for a reason.

  2. Another excellent post. Thank you. Many of my friends and family don't understand how hard it is to get affordable insurance if you don't have a big company providing it for you. They don't understand that their own situations are not as secure as they'd like to think. They don't understand that while they are proudly attending their tea parties, they are actually fighting against their own best interests. It frustrates the heck out of me.