Thursday, January 5, 2012

Rosie (and Bernie Sanders) on Healthcare

We had a special guest during my AP Gov class today– Bernie Sanders, our junior senator and one of the two Independents in Congress (he caucuses with the Democrats). He was on the Colbert Report a few days ago to talk about his proposed constitutional amendment which would overturn the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision. He's pretty cool.

I like Senator Sanders for several different reasons. One, his views: he described himself today as "the most progressive member of Congress", a definition I find it difficult to argue with. In addition, he's friendly and despite the fact that he was talking to an auditorium partially full of high school students today, he seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say– and he didn't try to press his views on us. He encouraged us to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions about things.

He's also got an independent spirit to match his independent label; he recently gave an eight-and-a-half hour speech in order to filibuster a bill. (This speech has now been published as a book, which I would rather like to read.) In a day and age where the minority simply indicates that they intend to filibuster and the Senate votes for cloture before anyone actually gets up and talks, I find that pretty impressive.

We ended up talking about healthcare when he came to talk to us today; it's clearly an issue he feels very strongly about, and he encouraged our participation. Firstly he asked us "Who here believes healthcare is a right for all people?" and most of us in the auditorium (myself included) raised our hands. He then asked us to debate the issue. We accepted the challenge a bit reluctantly at first, but he appreciated our questions and comments. The central issue of our debate was this: Why should people with higher incomes have to pay for lower-income folks' access to healthcare through taxes in a system with some government support for healthcare?

Several points were raised– the fact that those with higher incomes do, in fact, have the money to pay a bit more in taxes, and that it doesn't make much sense for them to have to pay less. One girl mentioned the natural rights theory famously echoed in the Declaration of Independence: the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I'd had something to say from the beginning, but I don't much like talking in front of people, so for quite a while I refrained from saying it.

Eventually, though, Senator Sanders asked, "Any more questions or opinions?" and I figured, oh, what the heck, so I raised my hand. I was sitting in the center of the third row, so he saw my hand almost immediately and called on me. The social studies teacher with the microphone jogged down to hand it to me.

"Hi," I said. "My name's Rosie. I have a comment. I think that one of the major purposes– and one of the major responsibilities– of government is to protect its citizens. That's why we have things like the Department of Defense. In my opinion, healthcare is another form of protecting people. I guess it just doesn't make sense to me that people would complain about paying taxes to fund healthcare and not the Department of Defense."

Okay, possibly not my most eloquently worded paragraph ever. But it got my point across– "That's a very good point," Senator Sanders told me. Maybe I'm not so bad at this public-speaking thing after all?

The entire conversation got me thinking about the healthcare debate. A few friends and I were discussing it a little bit after Senator Sanders had to leave, and some of them thought that to say people had a "right to healthcare" was too strong in terms of language. I didn't say anything at the time, but after thinking about it, I think I disagree.

If healthcare isn't a right, then what is it? A privilege? Something only owed to the "deserving", or those with enough money? Something that some people should have to live without? Something optional?

I'm sorry, but no. I don't think that's true.

And, as Senator Sanders pointed out in our discussion today, it's not really about politics. The healthcare debate is much more about being a good human being– loving your neighbor, to borrow a basic tenant of Christianity. Universal healthcare shouldn't even be an issue under question, and if people were less selfish, I don't think it would be. Yes: healthcare is a right, and everyone deserves healthcare, no matter what. And if they don't have the resources to provide it themselves– well, the government has a responsibility to help fix that, and to say that healthcare isn't a basic right and not everyone is entitled to it represents an appalling lack of compassion.

Come on, humanity. Let's learn to give a little bit.

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