05/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America the Barbaric: Without Universal Health Care We Cannot Be a Great Power

President Obama summed up the health care debate best on Friday when he told the throng at George Mason University: "It's a debate about the character of our country -- about whether we can still meet the challenges of our time, whether we still have the guts and courage to give every citizen, not just some, the chance to reach their dreams."

No other industrialized nation in the world denies its citizens universal health care. That ours still does is a moral affront to everything we stand for. How can we say we offer equality of opportunity when those who work the hardest have the least medical coverage?

During the past year, we've heard many dramatic and heart-wrenching stories. But to find out just how close these stories hit to home, play a round of Six Degrees of the Uninsured. Ask the people in your circle of frequent contact if they have health insurance. It probably won't take long for you to find several who don't, and their stories just might churn your stomach.

Jan, the woman who administered my dental plan's office, was uninsured. So as she helped me get the dental care I needed, she was at risk from all the infectious diseases that came across her desk every day. And I was at risk of getting them from her because she couldn't afford to seek treatment promptly. When I asked her how she lived with such insecurity she said: "I pray and take my vitamins." Then she got fired for refusing to spy on her fellow workers.

My cousin Renee, who works as a legal secretary, is now uninsured, along with her husband and 8 year-old-son, although other jobs have covered her in the past. Trained as a paralegal, even she could not figure out the forms that would supposedly enroll her son for a federally supported children's policy. With a worsening economy, she had to take a lower-paid job that did not include health insurance. When she was hired, her employer said, "Surely you have health insurance through your husband." She was afraid she would lose the job if she told the truth: her husband's work was unstable and seldom included insurance. She was the family breadwinner for now.

Robin, the woman who takes care of my disabled mother, has no health insurance. She works for a private company that contracts with Medicaid to offer in-home care of patients who might otherwise be forced into nursing homes. Without Robin's help, my mother would have to leave her home of 50 years or -- even worse in her opinion -- be forced to live with me. Robin has a severely disabled daughter herself, who receives medical care through Medicaid. But Robin has no coverage. So when Robin is up all night with her daughter's seizures, and her stressed immune system is overwhelmed, anything she catches goes right back home to her daughter or to my mother. Every day she can't afford to go to the doctor is another day of risk for those who can.

We Americans who have the great good fortune to be insured through a job or a loved one also have a moral obligation to help those who don't. The folks who are uninsured in today's America have jobs and families but no access to affordable health care. They contribute every day to our economy and pay taxes that fund health care for the elderly, disabled, and the poor. Such Americans should not be kicked to the curb when they themselves are sick or unable to find work. As the saying goes, there but for the grace of God go I. But sometimes it is easier to look away than to face our own vulnerability.

We've been told in the health care debate that the richest nation on the earth (even during a global recession) can't afford to offer health care for all its citizens. What happened to the famous American can-do spirit that saved Europe from dictators during a global depression? Surely we can figure out an efficient way to provide health care at a reasonable cost. We can do it through a federally subsidized program that uses private insurers, as in Germany, or a single-payer system as in Canada. What we cannot do is continue to avert our eyes and pretend we don't see the consequences that so many of our fellow Americans must face every day.

There but for the grace of God go I.