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Dingell: Health Care Should Be a Right, Not a Privilege

In my more than 50 years of serving in the House, no issue has captured my attention or passion quite like health care reform. Since my first day in office, I have been committed to this issue, and today, more than five decades later, my commitment remains steadfast. The resolve to achieve universal health care is just as noble as it was when I first entered Congress, but the urgency is far greater.

I work from the driving principle that health care should be a right, not a privilege, a belief that my father shared during his 23 years as a Member of Congress. Every new Congress since 1956, I have carried on my father’s torch by introducing H.R. 15, a bill he once championed that would provide universal health care for all Americans. He laid the groundwork for national health insurance, and I have devoted my career to seeing it happen.

Over this time, I have witnessed major gains in expansion of health care coverage, and have also seen opportunities lost. Take 1935 as the first example. After the establishment of Social Security, President Franklin Roosevelt, working with my father, who also served in Congress, planned to address health care for all. But — and this will sound familiar — an impending recession and the impending danger of international conflict, coupled with partisan political battles over enlarging the Supreme Court, forced our leaders to pass on the issue of health reform. I remember my father talking with former UAW President Walter Reuther about how this issue could someday break the back of the auto industry.

Under the bold leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, I helped move Medicare and Medicaid through Congress in 1965. We hoped the success of these programs would catapult a call for further reform into the national conversation, but Vietnam prevented that from happening.

It took almost 30 years before another president came along and committed to providing all Americans quality and affordable health care. However, President Bill Clinton’s efforts were met with grand resistance and millions of dollars to wage a campaign of misinformation against the plan. A series of television advertisements claimed we couldn’t afford it and that it would be a bureaucratic nightmare that would pry patients away from beloved family doctors. The effort died in my committee when it failed by one vote.

With our economy under strain and our patients, businesses and states suffering, we now have another opportunity to accomplish our mission of comprehensive health care reform. The stars have aligned in favor of progress, and this time if for no other reason than economic necessity, we can be successful, because we must be.

If we do not act now, we risk missing a tremendous opportunity, and history has shown us that ignoring the problem does not cure our health care woes. For economic and humanitarian reasons, we need health care reform now — and waiting will only make it harder to do, as well as more damaging to the nation we live in.

We spend more on health care than any other nation on Earth and have less to show for it than any other Western country — yet we keep delaying reform. Health care spending continues to rise at the fastest rate in our nation’s history, last year more than 7 percent — more than twice the rate of inflation. The United States spends more than $2.2 trillion on health care each year, approximately 16 percent of the total economy.

The high cost of health care causes a bankruptcy every 30 seconds. By the end of the year, it will cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes. Premiums have grown four times faster than wages over the past eight years, and in each of these years, a million more Americans have lost their health insurance.

Right now, an American company is laying off a worker it can’t afford to cover. Right now, a pregnant woman is forgoing prenatal care because of its high cost. Right now, a sick child is not being treated because a trip to the doctor is too expensive. As you read this newspaper, dozens of people are filing for bankruptcy in the wake of a serious health problem. And by the end of the day, two people in my home state of Michigan will be dead because they lack health insurance.

In the budget plan he released earlier this month, President Barack Obama demonstrated that he has the courage to face one of the toughest challenges of our time — health care reform. The recent health care reform summit is a major step toward accomplishing this massive undertaking. Obama understands that we cannot fix our economic problems without reforming the nation’s health care system — the two are intertwined at all levels of our society.

This is not just a humanitarian issue or just an economic issue — it is an urgent issue that we must face now. It is now time for Congress, providers, industry, advocates and the American people to meet Obama’s level of urgency and to do our part in showing that we are just as serious about providing quality, affordable health care for all Americans

It is not going to be easy. My long history with health care reform has taught me to expect misinformation campaigns and an active and well-funded opposition. This process will be no different.

However, with sustained, focused leadership from the president, swift action by Congress, an expectation of shared sacrifice from all interested parties, and continued pressure from the American people, this time we can pass comprehensive health care reform. I look forward to working with the president and his team in crafting a plan that will make quality and affordable health care accessible for all Americans.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) is the chairman emeritus of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and will play a key role in the committee’s deliberations on health care reform.

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