Health Care Reform: The Right Thing to Do

The entire nation seems 'stuck on hold" while we await word from the Supreme Court.

Will they or won't they affirm the constitutionality of the "individual mandate" provision of the Affordable Health Care Act? Whether the justices deem that life-saving care is a constitutional guarantee, or not, it will always be the right thing to do.

In the fall of 1973 my father and mother experienced every parent's worst nightmare: their child was diagnosed with a lethal form of bone cancer. Amputating their 12-year-old son's leg was the surest way to save his life.

Among the chaos of pain, terror and anguish that flooded through their weary brains during my brother's diagnosis, surgery, treatment and physical therapy so that he could learn how to walk with a prosthetic limb, the one fear neither Mom nor Dad had to face was "How will we pay for this?"

Ted and Joan Kennedy, ironically, were the lucky ones. My brother, Teddy Jr., recovered fully and our father was able to witness the birth of his grandson and namesake, Edward M. Kennedy III.

But for millions of Americans, a diagnosis of cancer would have not only been emotionally and physically devastating, it could have meant bankruptcy and perhaps even losing their home, along with their child.

My father saw this health care crisis coming decades before it dominated headlines, talk shows, opinion pages and Facebook chat rooms. In fact, he dedicated his almost forty-seven years in public office to what he called "the unfinished business of our nation," that of assuring every American has the medical care he or she needs to survive.

And while Ted Kennedy did not live to see health care reform signed into law, he was instrumental in helping me co-sponsor the "Paul Wellstone Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act" of 2008, a bill that guarantees fair and equal coverage for those who struggle with maladies of the mind. Watching that bill pass with bipartisan support and signed into law by President George W. Bush was my proudest day in office.

Then two years later, I was honored to be at President Barack Obama's side as he put his signature to the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" in 2010, exactly forty years after my father first introduced a bill to provide national health insurance.

Sadly, that was not the end of the debate. After two more years of political and legal wrangling, we still are without health care protection. And so we wait some more before finally hearing (perhaps as early as this week) whether the Supreme Court agrees with my father when he said, health care was not "a question of policy, but one that goes to the heart of a just society."

Meanwhile, there is another health care law that awaits action. Our "Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act" has been on the books four years and has yet to be realized. But its delay is due not to constitutional challenges or political partisanship. Mental Health Parity languishes due to ignorance, bigotry and attitudinal barriers, which stigmatize mental challenges as somehow less urgent, or less tangible.

These delays must stop. This has become an issue that cannot wait for many Americans, most urgently, our servicemen and women. Just last week the Pentagon reported that suicide among active duty troops has become epidemic. Shockingly, more active duty troops are dying by their own hand than are killed in action. And the numbers only get worse once the soldier comes home: a veteran takes his or her own life every 80 minutes.

We cannot allow these heroes to become medical Prisoners of War due to their unseen wounds, including traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, depression and substance abuse. While we debate, they deteriorate.

They fought and suffered for us, but if we only treat their broken limbs, ignoring their often ravaged minds as carrying "invisible" and somehow "shameful" wounds, we dishonor ourselves.
We need to demand that our nation serve these patriots and not allow our party polemics and fiscal bickering to dishonor their service and their sacrifice.

Like thousands of veterans, my brother Teddy has a prosthetic limb. We need to make sure their hidden wounds of war are treated with same urgency as their lost arms and legs. We must all work to treat illnesses of the brain with the diligence with which my brother's cancer once was.

My father called universal health care the "cause of my life."

Regardless of how the Court votes, his fight, and all of our fight, will continue so that needed physical and mental care is actually received.

As we learned last week, every delay costs lives. Literally.