Access in the Aftermath

If we are going to tolerate a system in which not all Americans have health care, then we must also accept that as part of this system disaster victims should receive funding in the long term.
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During the terrible aftermath of the 7.0 quake that hit Haiti last month, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann had Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York on as a guest. Obermann's show, Countdown, had booked Rep. Weiner's appearance in order to discuss health care, but the news from Haiti was too horrifying to ignore. Attempting to bridge the two subjects, Olbermann asked Rep. Weiner how he thought Americans would fare in such a disaster; whether we, unlike the perennially unlucky citizens of Haiti, would have a truly accessible health care system to fall back on, even those of us without insurance or money with which to pay for care.

Weiner replied that Americans would fare just fine in such a situation, and that our current debate over the medical system is not about whether we can access health care but how we will pay for it. To some degree he is right. Americans are rarely left without triage and immediate care options after a major catastrophe (thought some in New Orleans during Katrina may disagree). For the most part, broken bones are taken care of, infections are staved off, bandages are available, and water and food makes it to victims in time. This is commendable, certainly, but it's not enough.

What Weiner did not address was the ways in which a disaster strains people's health in the long run and requires a commitment to long-term care. This is the type of care that is more likely to slip through the cracks in a system like America's, when months or years later victims are not able to pay for the care they need for conditions they developed during or as a result of the disaster. Watching the tragedy in Haiti unfold, we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back simply because Americans can anticipate basic care in a major emergency. Our expectations should not be that low. If we are going to tolerate a system in which not all Americans have health care and a health care system in which medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy, then we must also accept that as part of this system, disaster victims should receive funding in the long term.

Recently, the Obama administration made a pledge of $150 million to treatment for victims of 9/11, a sum double the size of the last burst of 9/11 health spending. The decision to do so, however, came a day after Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius declared that the administration would not support the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, a bill being introduced by several New York and New Jersey Congressmen and Senators that would provide long-term funding for programs that treat sick 9/11 victims. President Obama has since admitted that he is not familiar with the legislation, backing off Sebelius's total rejection of long-term 9/11 health spending. His administration has, however, stated that it will not pass any discretionary spending bills for the next three years, leaving the future of this legislation, which NY and NJ representatives have been attempting to pass in some form for years, up in the air and most likely a long shot. Added to that is the increasing concern among lower Manhattan students, residents, workers that they will be cut out of the bill as a cost saving measure if it ever does see the light of day.

After seeing the horrifying images from Haiti in the last few weeks, many people have finally said, "We can't abandon them this time." And certainly, this earthquake must provide an impetus for the international community to help Haiti solve the major problems with its broken infrastructure, both now and in the long term, without abusing our position there. But just as we should provide sustained support to Haiti, we owe it to the American people to offer sustained support at home as well. Given our comparative economic advantages not just over Haiti but over most of the Western Hemisphere, we should be able to at least take care of our own disaster victims. Though it's only a step on the path to providing health care to all Americans, it would least be progress, which is something we've seen very little of recently.

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