08/30/2009 03:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Balls, Brains and Humility to Be Healthy

It's August, almost Labor Day. For a week, we've read little except about the death and pageantry surrounding the mourning for and burial of Ted Kennedy. You'll note that not even the right wing is going along with this. Why? Because they are all on vacation, just like their brethren on the left. So, too, are the Senators and House members who spent the first part of the recess getting a dose of democracy that will enliven more than a few nightmares. Like everyone else, they are taking refuge in the warm embrace of family and other -- less official -- loved ones.

Here, at the end of August, it's almost easy to forget that health care reform remains an urgent, national necessity. Whether the current effort has life in it or not is irrelevant: change must come. Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats should not confuse their impressive ability to mobilize their shrunken base in ways both shrill and frightening. True, they whipped fear and doubt into the occluded heart of fearful and reactionary voters, but preserving the status quo is no victory. It simply means that people will live shorter, less healthy lives. This sort of political victory literally makes us all sicker.

The Democrats, of course, bear plenty of blame. Quite simply, they provided us with 1,200 page bills, not rallying cries. They reminded us that the business of governing is often chaotic but did so without the a clear leader or message to make sense of it all. Maybe had Kennedy been healthy or Obama not so distracted with trying to save the economy and our collective asses, things would have been different. But Kennedy is dead and the president spent too much time staying away or playing defense to sell a nonspecific concept. Throw in the unwillingness to upset pharma or the insurance industry too much, and what should have been a difficult victory has turned into a quiet dissipation of opportunity.

Health care reform is still necessary to save the economy. Moreover, it's morally virtuous and patriotic and completely justifiable on purely selfish grounds. Currently, in more than 30 other countries everyone has access to health care and everyone lives longer, on average, than Americans. (That includes people who have already reached the age of sixty.) So the only question is do we change now or when things are much worse.

Now would be better. To get things done, I suggest that we simplify this debate. First, let's be clear: the goal is universal health care -- no ifs, ands or buts. Second, let's avoid the dread form of socialism by following in the footsteps of Germany, France and Japan. They all have universal health but no one could call their system's socialist. Three, let's have the balls, brains and humility to learn how these countries went from the concept of universal health care to functioning systems that cost half of what the status quo does in America. And finally, let's remember that exceptions don't prove rules. No system can prevent every tragedy, but that's hardly a reason to retain a system that will, for certain, lead to a lower standard of living. (In other words, the Canadians and British are still healthier than we are.)

The need is real. The way forward is clear. The message should be obvious: universal care benefits us all. Let's get on with it.