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Dignity is Not a ‘Public Option’

Nguoi Viet, Commentary, Ky-Phong Tran Posted: Sep 26, 2009

For weeks, I have been watching the health care debate/debasement and trying to make sense of it all.

The terms flying around are complicated enough — health co-op, managed care, single-payer health care, public option — without opponents running around telling what I consider to be overt lies about the plans (death panels, the demise of Medicare, health care rations). But I suppose, sadly, that confusion and anger are all a part of the political playbook.

So even though I consider myself a pretty smart guy and versed in public policy, I will not even attempt to use facts, statistics, or arguments in support of a universal health care system.

Me? I prefer stories.

* * *

The world spins around and around. I have a severe case of food poisoning, resulting in uncontrollable vomiting, diarrhea and vertigo. I am taken to the UCLA hospital emergency room. But there is a problem: I do not have health insurance. After the staff stabilizes me, they say they cannot treat me any further and recommend a county hospital across the city.

My best friend drives me to Martin Luther King, Jr. County Hospital in Watts. It lives up to its nickname —''Killer King.'' To enter the emergency room, you pass through a metal detector. An on-duty sheriff watches the room from behind bullet-proof glass. A man walks inbleeding profusely from knife wounds to his hands.

I wait for more than five hours, and I am never seen by a doctor. It is 1994. I am a freshman at UCLA. It is finals week.

* * *

It is 1997, and my mom is rushed to the emergency room. She has passed out and is unconscious. At Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, she loses more than 20 pounds in less than 48 hours.

After being laid off from her job of more than 10 years, she cannot afford health insurance. Although she suffers from chronic back problems from a broken vertebrae and is a Type 1 diabetic, she has been rejected from Medi-Cal and Medicare over and over again.

Fours year later, it takes an attorney and a lawsuit for my mom to get government health coverage. In a case of poetic injustice, it was not even for her physical ailments, but for mental health issues. As for her treatment at Harbor-UCLA, she may not have had money or power, but she had her pride. She paid them $25 a month until the day she died.

* * *

It is 1999 and my dad has no teeth.

Since being disabled by a stroke, he has had both Medi-Cal and Medicare but they will not pay for a new set of dentures. For weeks, my dad drinks only soup. He walks around with a perpetual frown, his lips sunk in around his gums. Eventually, our family pays out of pocket for his dentures to be repaired.

* * *

So why can’t it be done? Why can’t the richest, most powerful country in the world, insure its citizens’ health?

I don’t know.

I do know that there is problem. Forty-six million Americans are uninsured. That is one out of every seven people living in fear. One accident bankrupts them and puts them on the streets.

I also know that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world to not have universal health care. Surprisingly, even poorer, less developed nations like Mexico, India, China, and Thailand offer universal health care.

And I do know that when it wants to, the federal government can run amazing, life-changing, historic programs: the National Park Service, National Highways, Veterans Affairs, the GI Bill, Medicare, NASA.

And more so, I do know that no matter what the yelling heads say on TV and radio, a majority of Americans (over 70 percent in most polls) want universal health care and the public option (a government-run medical plan that is an alternative to private health insurance).

* * *

When I see the media yahoos and the stiff politicians on TV, I wonder if any of them knows what it is like to not have health coverage. To see loved ones not be treated.

This national health care debate is not an abstraction. It is not a chance for the rich to stay rich and the powerful to stay in charge. And it is certainly not a political game.

This debate is real. It is personal.

It is an 18-year old me, doing what he is supposed to, getting accepted to UCLA but then rejected from its emergency room. It is my mom stressed to her mental breaking point. It is my dad — in the richest nation in the history of the world — toothless.

Universal health coverage is about medical care, but it’s also about much more.

It is an implied agreement between a country and its people that says if you wake up, put in an honest day’s effort — at the end of the day, no matter who you are, what you do, or where you live, if you get sick, you count. You matter. You will be provided for.

The public option is about dignity. When was dignity ever an option?

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