Chan Lowe: You can get it if you really want it

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PITTSFIELD — For many, political involvement is a nuisance to be avoided. After all, it's hard enough to simply earn a living amid stagnant salaries and the ever-rising costs of life's necessities. Who has time?

I like to ask people who their member of Congress is — not to put them on the spot, but as a gauge of their interest in civic matters. If they can't answer that question, it means they vote blindly if at all, don't check candidates' positions and whether they comport with their own, or petition them when the federal government acts in a way contrary to their sentiments. Maybe they have no political sentiments. Maybe the scope of their world is limited to family, job, friends and side interests. Maybe they have no idea what their government could do for them if they gave it a kick in the posterior.

I'm deeply engrossed in politics because it's an essential part of my job; a spinoff benefit is that it helps me, in my opinion, be a better citizen. I can't imagine not keeping up with current political affairs because I've been a journalist my entire adult life. It is not for me to make value judgments about others' commitment to citizenship, since most of them do not share my profession.

The Ontario plan

I will tell you this story, however: I have relatives in Ontario. My cousin developed a brain tumor several years ago, and the only hospital that could treat it was in Toronto, four hours away by train. She was transported there from her home, and endured multiple surgeries over several weeks. During that time, her mother came to visit and stayed in a hotel attached to the hospital. Eventually my cousin returned home, and due to her post-operative condition her house needed to be fitted with a wheelchair ramp. She also had to undergo months of rehab.

Everything I described above was paid for by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). Without this government-provided health insurance, a woman of her means and her family would have been bankrupted.

My cousin and her family have never had to make painful employment choices based on health care decisions, because their care is not provided to them as a company "benefit." I say "benefit" in quotes because after premiums, deductibles and co-pays get taken care of, many of us Americans who are lucky enough to "enjoy" such a perk realize that all we're really paying for is catastrophic health insurance — and at a pretty high rate, at that.

In Canada, even the unemployed have medical care. Imagine knowing that if you lose your job, your family is still covered; no COBRA, no ACA that you have to qualify for, nothing. Imagine being able to take your child to see a doctor when an ailment is in its incipient stages, rather than gambling that it will go away or having to rush to the emergency room when it becomes life-threatening. If you're a doctor, imagine not needing to hire staffers dedicated to dealing with Byzantine insurance paperwork. If you're an employer, imagine the health care overhead you don't have to pay to get your business going and keep it thriving, or to attract top talent.

Some countries in Western Europe have even better deals. Paid parental leave for mothers and fathers, with a guarantee that their job will still be there when they come back. Cradle-to-grave health and long-term elder care benefits. Free government child care. I'm convinced that if more Americans knew what governments provide in countries where such benefits are considered a universal human right, they'd take up their torches and pitchforks and storm the halls of Congress. (By the way, members of Congress and their families enjoy generous health insurance coverage at low cost that they wisely enacted for themselves, so they don't need convincing about its benefits).

And don't tell me about the high taxes in those countries. Yes, they're high — but if you roll in your health insurance costs as an American and the inefficiencies baked into a profit-based system as complicated and lumbering as ours, you'll find that for less than what you're paying now, you will be assured medical care without the paperwork, the limitations of private plans or the need to make life choices based on health insurance access or availability.

A thorn in the side

Americans hold the power to have the finest, most affordable and inclusive health care system in the world. All they have to do is get together and say they want it. If they choose to make it the top priority single voting issue to which all others are subordinated, if they tell their senators and representatives that they must commit to passing single-payer government-provided health care as a right to all Americans or be fired, it will magically come to pass — health insurance industry lobbyists be damned.

Need proof? Earlier this week, the Virginia Legislature finally voted, after years of resistance, to accept the federal Medicaid subsidies that would make the ACA more affordable for low-income residents. A handful of Republicans crossed the aisle to make it happen. One GOP state representative who hails from coal country in the far western part of the state, a district that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, said he could no longer bear to deprive his constituents of the health care they so sorely needed. Maybe those same constituents saw how their counterparts over the border in Kentucky were benefiting from that state's Kynect health system and wanted it for themselves. In any case, the representative, albeit belatedly, got religion.

This is but one example of how political involvement can make a difference in our personal lives — lives that need so much tending that we would leave the running of the country to special interests and insiders. If we really want to fix the problem, we first need to fix ourselves.

Your member of Congress, by the way, is named Richard Neal. He has staffers you pay to answer his phones, respond to his emails and listen to your complaints. If there are enough of them, they even pass them along. Be a thorn in his side.

Chan Lowe is the deputy editorial page editor of The Eagle and a syndicated editorial cartoonist.


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