The patriotic case for universal health care

Is “socialized medicine” good for business?

That seems to be one possible conclusion from the news that America’s Big Three automakers– General Motors, Ford and Daimler-Chrysler– are shifting production out of the United States to Canada because of massive health-care costs.

As Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek:

An American worker costs them more than $6,500 in health care per year. In Canada, which has a government-funded and -run health-care system, the cost to the employer per worker is just $800.

Both American and Canadian autoworkers are represented by the same union, it should be noted.

While Zakaria can’t bring himself to endorse a Canadian-style system for the US, he does concede the urgent need for a change:

President Bush is said to be a man who favors bold, visionary policies over small, symbolic ones. But to spend all his political capital in the pursuit of private (or personal) accounts in Social Security at this moment is to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic while the iceberg looms ever larger.

In February General Motors chief executive G. Richard Wagoner Jr. said American manufacturers are losing their ability to compete in the global marketplace in large measure because of the crushing burden of health care costs.

In a speech at the Economic Club of Chicago, the auto executive, who is responsible for providing health insurance for more people than any other private employer in the nation, graphically detailed how rising medical bills are eating into his company’s bottom line and ultimately threatening the viability of most U.S. firms.

“Failing to address the health care crisis would be the worst kind of procrastination,” Wagoner said, “the kind that places our children and our grandchildren at risk and threatens the health and global competitiveness of our nation’s economy.”

Is “socialized medicine” good for national security?

Back in 2003 David L. Englin, a US military officer, made a strong case for universal health insurance on national security grounds, especially as a defense against biowarfare. His arguments still make sense to me.

Vaccination and networked alert systems are both worthy pillars of a national biodefense strategy — but without universal health care, they rest on a shaky foundation. In a general sense, a strong, healthy population will always be less vulnerable and more resilient in the face of disease. But more specifically, people without normal access to health care are much less likely to have access to preemptive vaccinations against biowarfare diseases. That is especially true when it comes to smallpox, where health-care providers must closely monitor patients during the days and weeks after vaccination because of the serious potential side effects. People without normal access to health care also are less likely to get accurate, credible information about diseases from the medical professionals we are training to respond to biological attacks — information that could be critical to a calm and coordinated national response. But most important, people without normal access to health care do not have doctors or nurses who know their medical histories, who can check out the “flu-like symptoms” that could be the early stages of a biowarfare infection; they are therefore far more likely to spread highly contagious diseases such as smallpox completely undetected. Even the most robust physicians’ biodefense network depends on people having normal access to those physicians in the first place.

That’s not the only way in which America’s current health care non-system weakens the country militarily.

National Public Radio reported last month that thousands of members of the National Guard and Reserve have been declared unfit for duty due to inadequate health care before they’re mobilized.

According to retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Koper, president of the National Guard Association, “Among our lowest enlisted grades, 40 percent do not have any kind of health insurance. They’re not as healthy as they might be… they are dependent on their own devices to get health care, and in many cases they don’t get it at all.”

While President Bush touts “tort reform” and “medical savings accounts” as the main solutions to the US health care crisis, Democrats ought to be making the case for more fundamental change as a matter of protecting decent American jobs and protecting American citizens from harm.

Update: Commenter Damian P. is correct that US and Canadian autoworkers do not belong to the same union. In fact the Canadian Auto Workers split from the United Auto Workers in 1985. However the UAW has long supported a single-payer health care system for the United States.