Standing for Something

07/31/2006 05:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today I was at Faneuil Hall at home in Boston to talk about health care with two people who ­- in my life -- are daily reminders of what's at stake if we don't at last get health care right.

The first is my friend Tom Farrington. Tom and I are both lucky. We were diagnosed with prostate cancer - and we got cured. Our fathers weren't so lucky. Prostate cancer took them away from us. But once I got well, and once Tom got well, we started learning more and more - and a statistic that stays with me - and with Tom -- who is African American - speaks volumes. African American men are 80% more likely to die of prostate cancer than white men. I started digging more, and discovered the unacceptable apartheid of health care in America: Black children five times more likely than white children to die of asthma; African Americans 70% more likely to have diabetes and 27% more likely to die from it. Just as the doctrine of 'separate but equal,' was wrong in education, it's wrong in health care. The quality of health care should never depend on the color of any American's skin.

The other person who was with me today is my daughter Vanessa. I couldn't be more proud of her. She's in her final year of medical school. I've seen her pack up and leave Massachusetts to study immunization in Ghana I've visited her as she's worked in hospitals here at home, and we've had more than our share of father-daughter talks about the kind of public service she's chosen. But hearing her speak at Faneuil Hall today brought home just how much her life and her compassion for her patients will inevitably be caught up in the kind of health care system we choose for our country - or, if we let the status quo continue, the kind of system chosen for us by special interests, and by companies like Wal-Mart.

Hearing both of them today reminded me why -- as long I'm in public service myself -- I'm determined to get health care right for our country. I fought hard for a health care plan I believed in when I ran for President. One of my biggest disappointments about losing the election was that we couldn't send our health care plan to Congress in the first 100 Days of a Democratic Administration. The learning gained from getting knocked on your ass in defeat is not my favorite way to gain insight and knowledge but it is an event in life that sticks with you. You are forced to confront your shortcomings, you have to figure out what you did wrong, you have to listen and you have to commit yourself to change. In defeat you also learn what really matters to you. And in defeat I was reminded that as lousy as it felt to lose, life's a hell of a lot harder for the working father who wakes up every day without health care for his kids. Life's a lot harder for the mom who is afraid to let her kids go outside to play in case they get hurt and she ends up with a medical bill she can't handle. So no matter what anyone thinks, I thought I had an obligation to dust myself off and fight for those families again.

Yes, it bothers me that two years later this president and his party still have nothing to offer on health care other than a Medicare prescription drug plan that has turned out to be an unfolding disaster for seniors and a massive give-away to the big drug companies. Every single day since Election Day, the health care crisis has grown steadily worse. The President has stuck to his guns--or his empty holster--and done nothing beyond trotting out the conservative hobby-horse of health savings accounts. What an insult to Americans whose wages have shrunk much so they can't save at all. Americans who need more than the empty promise of an account they can never create with money they can't save for health care they can't afford.

So, I'm sticking to my guns as well. It is time to jump-start a debate around the country that can shake Washington into action before the health care crisis devastates millions more of America's families--and hollows out America's economy.

Here's my bottom line - these are the four principles I'm going to go to the mat to make real:

FIRST - Every American, and I mean everybody, must have health coverage by 2012.

SECOND - To get there, we start with kids first. They're born; they're enrolled in health care. They go to child care, they're enrolled. They go to school, they're enrolled. No "ifs," "ands," or "buts," every child gets health care - automatically, immediately, every child in America gets health care now.

THIRD - We must and will control the skyrocketing premiums, co-pays, and exclusions that make a mockery of the insurance hard-working families pay for month after month. No longer will families be pushed into bankruptcy by medical bills they can't pay -- no longer will sons and daughters have to choose between paying for a doctor's bill for one child or college tuition for another -- it is time to finally guarantee that as health care costs are held down, Americans get the health care they need and deserve.

FOURTH - and finally, instead of telling tens of millions to wait until they are sick enough to go to an emergency room, we must and will assure high quality and preventive care for every American.

I think any of us who are progressives have some big tests right now - what are we doing to deal with the mess in Iraq? What are we doing to prevent global catastrophe threatened by climate change? And what are we doing to make our country fair again? Add one to the list: what are you willing to fight for to make health care work for everyone?

We can't meet that last challenge if Washington just tinkers with one little problem or another, timidly one at a time, when what we need is a new and comprehensive national health strategy. We can't accept so-called solutions to get through the next election by ignoring the needs of the next generation. The Democratic Party must stand for health care for all Americans--or we don't stand for anything at all. Some have suggested that I offer a new health care plan so it can sound new. But I'm not reinventing the wheel, because what I put forward in 2004 works. It was a good plan then, and it's a good plan now. The proposal I'm going to fight for this year and next year-- and until it gets done -- lives up to that challenge in a sensible, practical, comprehensive way that will cover all Americans with better quality at lower costs by 2012.

So here we are, it's time to get tough - and it's time to get real. We have a choice here: in 2006, if the Congress won't fix health care, then Americans can fix the Congress. And in 2008, no matter who it is, we damn well need to elect a President who will make health care a reality not just a sound bite. I'm not willing to give up that fight. Check out my health care plan here. Good or bad, I'll stick around tonight and read your comments when I'm back home - and I want to hear from you about how we finish this job.