Health Care - Like Education - a Public Good

Labor Day weekend. The traditional start of the school year -- though every school district I know of seems to have started earlier this year.

Labor Day weekend. The date marking Congress's return from its August recess. Our representatives are back to work, trying to take into account the lessons that they learned at town hall meetings, backyard barbeques, and state fairs.

I'm a teacher; my wife is a teacher; our children and their spouses are teachers. We care about education. While my wife and I are college professors, our children teach in public schools. We believe strongly in free public education.

Free public education is ingrained in the American psyche. In many ways it defines our society. The United States is a better place because we educate our youth. We grade our communities by the quality of their schools.

In Washington Congress is debating the President's health care reform. One aspect of this debate, stirred on by the meetings those legislators had with their constituents over the last month, is concern that the President's plan will lead to free health care for children of illegal immigrants. As reported in Sunday's New York Times, Georgia Republican Congressman Phil Gingrey, one of the few physicians in the House, noted this concern. "A lot of their kids are in the school system. They get a free public education without any question. My constituents don't want the same thing to happen with regard to health care."

Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa worried about "unintended consequences" in the House bill and intends to include a provision for citizen verification in any bill that emerges from the Senate. Never mind that one section of the House bill is entitled, "No Federal Payment for Undocumented Aliens."

I am amazed by this debate. How can we be proud as a nation that we have universal, free public education, but not health care? Can that possibly make sense? Be sure they go to school, but if they get sick, well, we cannot afford to do anything about that. If a child whose parents do not have health insurance comes down with Swine Flu and is not treated, that child will probably go to school. And spread the flu. How can that possibly make sense?

Public education is a public good. We as a society understand that we all benefit from an educated population.

Public health is just as much a public good. But that debate has not been joined. Why not?

Health care reform is all about politics. The lesson that the Republicans learned from the defeat of the Clinton proposal was that it presaged other defeats for President Clinton's agenda and largely derailed Democratic gains made in the 1992 election. The best read I can make of GOP tactics in 2009 is to do anything possible to derail any health care reform. The scare tactics that have been used -- around illegal immigrants, the non-existent "death panels," funding of abortions, the worry that citizens will lose their existing coverage, etc. -- have fueled a public response directed at a proposal that does not exist. And that has been the goal.

The Republican strategy seems to be that defeating health care reform will end the Obama honeymoon and lead to GOP gains in the 2010 election in excess of those in normal off-year elections after a new President is chosen.

The Democrats have yet to respond in a way that demonstrates that they understand that lesson. Liberal Democrats claim that they want the most far-reaching plan they can devise, or they will vote against any plan. The conservative Blue Dog Democrats are poised to let health care reform fail if it does not meet their standards. Politics dominates in both views -- bad politics.

As the Congress returns, the question will be whether those who recognize the problem and are willing to search for a compromise solution, a position exemplified by that held by Senator Olympia Snowe from Maine, the Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee working most closely with the White House to find such a position, can regain control over the debate. The President's speech on Wednesday night will go a long way toward defining his view on this matter.

More than that, the Congress will be on trial before the American people. Can reaching toward a proximate, if not perfect, solution to a problem that clearly must be addressed take precedence over partisan politics? Analysts should be judging the Congress on that standard as they comment on the health care reform process.

L. Sandy Maisel is director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College.