Health Care From Your Faucet?

07/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sally Kohn Writer, progressive activist, Fox News contributor

What do health care reform and drinking water have in common? Just as we spend more than any nation in the developed world on health care, Americans spend over $15 billion a year on bottled water.

Now bottled water may be expensive and plastic bottles may be bad for our general, planetary health. But this is America and we have a private market and if we allow companies to sell water and you want to buy it, that's your right. But we still need public tap water. Millions of Americans can't afford bottled water. Others just prefer tap. And pretty much all of us when we brush our teeth or drink from a water fountain or order a glass of water at a restaurant are relying on good ol' fashioned public water.

In other words, for reasons of public health and equity and just having a fall-back option in case the store runs out of Poland Springs, it's important we have tap water and that choice.

Health care reform is really no different. Millions of Americans have private health insurance that they're pretty happy with. They like their doctor, they have reasonable co-pays and prescription drugs are fairly affordable, too. But millions of Americans have no health care at all. And millions more are fed up with rising deductibles, no coverage for preventative care, exclusions for pre-existing conditions and other deep flaws in the private insurance system. And the American thing to do is make sure they have another option, a choice.

Options are voluntary. You don't have to pick them. You can choose to keep your current insurance. With a public health insurance option, that's your choice. The alternative plan is just there for you, as an option, if you want it.

But the good news is private markets flourish with choice. When new options and choices are introduced, other players are forced to compete. It's like that saying for that online insurance broker: "When banks compete, you win." Well, when insurance companies compete, you win. Insurance companies have had a monopoly for far too long, with no real outside competition. It's like Detroit in a way, that got so comfortable with the US monopoly on automobiles that when competition arrived from Japan and elsewhere, they weren't prepared. They were making cars no one really wanted and when faced with competition, they crumbled. Forcing Detroit to compete along time ago would have saved the American auto industry. And forcing competition now is the only hope for improving our health care system, including private insurance.

Water gives us a splash of reality about the dangers of private monopolies. In 1999, the city of Atlanta, Georgia, decided to privatize its entire water system because the government-run agency water agency had been completely undermined by corruption. The city gave a 20-year, $420 million contract to a division of the French company Suez. But just four years later, the city canceled the contract. Atlanta residents, who were now paying for their water above and beyond their usual tax bills, complained of brown water coming out of their faucets. In some parts of Atlanta, residents were advised to boil their water before drinking it. With a private monopoly, without any competition, corporate interests were able to ruin the water system for everyone in a few short years.

Everyone needs health care, just like everyone needs water. As a national community, we have a responsibility to guarantee affordable, quality health care for everyone, along with safe drinking water, food, shelter and the essentials of life on which we all rely. We need to provide these things for those who don't have them. And for those who do have health insurance and such, an alternative back-up option is still a good idea.

After all, 24% of bottled water is actually just filtered tap water. Public systems inherently trickle into and shape the private market. So if we want the private options to be better, we'd be wise to invest in a public option, too.