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Why Health Reform Was the Right Thing to Do

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In the wake of the landmark passage of comprehensive health care reform by President Obama and the Democratic congress, I'm reminded of how absolutely necessary the move was. For me, 2009 cemented my view that universally available medical care wasn't just a rallying cry of the Left, but it was also one of the most basic ingredients of a civilized society.

Back in 1994 my mother heard the word every woman fears: Cancer. She was a veteran Los Angeles public school teacher and had always had good insurance, she'd say thanks to her tough union. Kaiser was her hospital and she jokingly boasts to this day to have had about every procedure they offer. But this time, it was her own diligence through a self exam that revealed a small lump in her breast. Sure enough, it was a malignant tumor.

She was relatively lucky, probably catching it about as early as you could, having to "only" endure a minor battery of treatments. And for almost the next 15 years she was in remission and cancer-free. But in late 2008 while getting her routine check up, the Kaiser doctors found what they first believed was a benign tissue density. Six months later, after a follow up visit, a biopsy proved it was definitely a new breast cancer.

I had never been the same since my mom's first diagnosis with the Big C. I haven't gone a week without considering her mortality, but also how lucky she and I both were. She had been fortunate enough to have full medical coverage, something that thousands of American women -- many of them moms -- don't. And when she did what all women should do, a breast self exam, she had options for what to do next. She never had to consider if she could simply afford a hospital visit only to be told it was nothing to worry about. Or worse, that they'd tell her it was cancer and she'd almost surely go bankrupt fighting it to stay alive.

My mom's now a two-time cancer survivor. She underwent treatment last year and her disease seems to be cooperating. She's in good spirits, enjoying her semi-retirement and moving into a new home soon. And I hug her every chance I get.

At the same time all of this was unfolding last year, my grandmother got suddenly very sick after nine months in an assisted living facility. Before that, she had enjoyed an amazing and fairly healthy life, skiing and working into her 90s. I last visited her over the summer, taking her to Kaiser for a check up. Unfortunately, within a few months, she had been hospitalized for some kidney problems which then lead to other issues, including pneumonia. I was by her side as she passed away peacefully last October. She was 98.

At one point during her long hospital stay, Kaiser's end of life counseling team (what Sarah Palin would have mischaracterized as a "death panel") huddled with me and my family in a small room a few doors down from grandmother's room. It all felt like life imitating the national conversation (The cover of Newsweek at that time was "The Case For Killing Granny"). I thought about Palin's disingenuous summer slogan and realized how in the whole debate last year, reality buckled under the weight of hyperbole. The more accurate scenario was that any family in our position would have wanted to know the best life and death options to consider. My uncle and mom (still recovering herself) needed to make some serious choices about their mother's final days. Hospice care? Nursing home? Comfort care? Let her go with peace and dignity?

Could I imagine a system where, in Palin's mind, a Washington paper pusher would have made these choices for us? Sure, but what's more likely is something akin to the current system. Insurance companies and hospital administrators are already making decisions on how much care can be provided and at what cost threshold. And, let's be real, society already does its own cost/benefit analysis for everything from air travel to food safety. As much as end of life choices are some of the most personal, the difficult truth is that somewhere deep in the process, logistics, resources and limitations need to be considered. Not to mention the wishes of the patient. But to act like this doesn't already involve financial decision making and protocols is fantasy if not convenient fear mongering.

Last year, as tough as it was, left me absolutely certain about one thing: There is no way that anybody who had spent hours in a hospital waiting room, or held a relative's hand while a doctor explained a surgical procedure or a disease, could be anything but a champion for universal health care coverage. At the very least, they'd want everybody to have the same access they received. And hopefully they'd also feel that almost any societal price is worth it to know that all Americans should have at least a base level of care. I can't imagine what last year would have been like if my family and I had to have fought with an insurance company, or gone into financial chaos over medical bills.

Nobody should have to choose between breast exams, end of life care, preventative treatments, and paying the rent. But even with this past week's historic passage of health reform, some people still don't see it like that. The roar of "Obamacare" opponents rose up again -- and in some even uglier ways than last summer. Thankfully, our better angels, ironically, in Congress, took the first major steps towards a new social contract and a better quality of life for millions.

I am not in love with every aspect of the Obama reforms. I'd have actually preferred a strong public option if not a single payer system. And like any fiscally conscious progressive, I'm concerned about waste and taxes as well. But if I ever needed more evidence that universal access to quality medical care is as important as having your life, liberty and pursuit of happiness ensured, I got it last year.

In the days moments after the House passed the Democrat's health care bill, Republicans along with their Conservative and Tea Partying brethren vowed to repeal the soon-to-be-law. As I write this, Senator McCain is on the TV with Sarah Palin promising to fight it into November. I guess my answer to them is, have at it. In my eyes, they couldn't be more wrong about what makes this country great. And if you're indeed still against universal coverage, you've probably been lucky so far. You probably haven't found yourself sitting in that hospital bed or waiting room yet, even though someday we all do. If you or anybody you love has ever had good treatment by a doctor or nurse, wouldn't you have wanted every person to have the same level of care? If there's one thing I'd like to think the Right and Left humans could agree on, this would be it. At least I'd hope so.

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