11/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

National Health Care: Making a Trip to Antarctica Possible

At dinner last night, my parents announced they are going to take a trip to Antarctica. Not your usual vacation destination, but it's been done. The twist is that my parents are 80 and 78 respectively, not an age at which most people choose to hike through Patagonia or look for penguins in the wild. And -- take that, teabaggers! -- my parents have spent most of their lives availing themselves of government-run health plans. Clearly, there were no insidious plans by the government to kill off my daughter's granny.

From the mid-1950s until 1979, when he retired, my dad was active duty military. My parents, and eventually their three kids, received health care through the U.S. government at military-run hospitals and clinics around the world. We were a fairly healthy family so there were no ongoing medical crises that I recall. And, if memory serves, military hospitals don't stand out in the interior design category. But they got the job done. I spent three days at Fort Meade with a concussion, got allergy shots at Wiesbaden Hospital in Germany, saw specialists when I needed them and internists when I didn't.

Once I graduated from college, I was thrown into the world of health insurance plans and choosing doctors and co-pays and waiting interminable lengths of time to see specialists. Like most twenty-somethings, it took a while to figure out the complex system. My parents, however, never had to worry. Once my dad retired, they were entitled to remain on CHAMPUS (the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services), a federally-funded health program. It saw my dad through two heart attacks and a bypass surgery. It kept my mom healthy through fibromyalgia and an ulcer. And, despite the rainbow of pills that they somehow manage to swallow in the course of 24 hours, they have not had to dip into savings or sell their house to fund them.

CHAMPUS has gotten a spiffy new name -- TRICARE -- along with more complex language to describe it, but it is essentially the medical care that strikes fear in the hearts of all those people who worship Congressman Joe Wilson. Some 9.4 million people are currently enrolled, many of them active duty military personnel and their families. I don't know enough to argue that it's the best possible care, but I can point to my two parents who still ride their tandem bike every day and swim every day and are healthy enough to plan a January trip to Antarctica. I can vouch for the fact that no one at any of the military clinics they visit has suggested that they have lived long enough and are taking up valuable space that could be better used by younger folks.

Congress has got to get the health care bill right to help the largest possible number of Americans while correcting a health care system that is bloated, difficult to navigate and a nightmare for those who switch jobs or are without them. It isn't true that something is better than nothing. But it is also possible to create a national health care system that would provide a health safety net for all of us, that would encourage healthy behaviors, that would make it possible to become critically ill without the added fear of losing your home or savings. And it is possible to keep people alive and healthy so they can choose to travel to Antarctica to see the penguins when they are into their eighth decade of life.

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