Health care retreat would betray founding principles

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected].


Years ago — considerably more than 20 — the legendary Fred Friendly gave me a pocket-size paperback containing the full texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the amendments.

Friendly, who died in 1998, was a pioneering radio producer in the postwar 1940s who joined CBS News in 1950 to produce radio and television programs. Among his early landmark achievements, he teamed with the equally legendary correspondent Edward R. Murrow and a select group of scrappy fellow journalists to establish the investigative documentary format on television as a powerful force in public affairs. Their March 9, 1954, broadcast of “See It Now” proved to be the beginning of the end for an earlier American demagogue and bully, Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

After leaving CBS in 1966 in a dispute with corporate management, Friendly became a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He continued to inspire and influence an upcoming generation of dedicated reporters and producers and, at the same time, created new television formats for exploring difficult ethical and moral issues.

I can’t recall exactly when Fred favored me (and countless others, to be sure) with a copy of America’s founding documents, which he typically handed out to his students. But we periodically crossed paths in the course of my work as a television critic at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York Daily News and during my long service as a juror for the duPont-Columbia Awards, national honors for excellence in broadcast and digital news, administered at the university’s grad school. 

Fred’s little book remains one of my treasures, having outlived a succession of briefcases that served as its home. The number of times I’ve fished it out to retrieve text or check exact wording —  sorry, Google — is beyond calculation.

The book fits comfortably in the palm of my hand and runs just 64 pages. Yet writings about the documents − representing 241 years of debates, discussions and court decisions − fill untold billions of pages housed in vast libraries and archives, both physical and digital.

What’s intriguing — while recognizing and respecting the legal scholarship and robust advocacy attached to the documents — is that the plain words of the documents sometimes have helped clarify for me some dizzying conflicts over current issues. 

Take health care, the most glaring and immediate example. Republican leaders are continuing their attempts to wipe out the 7-year-old provisions of the Affordable Care Act and return health insurance and medical costs in the U.S. to the state of dismal crisis that existed prior to March 2010.

Whether Republicans, Democrats, independents or whoever want to change health care, the fact is that only the tiniest handful of Americans could afford to pay the cost of health care on their own if they got gravely ill. Only a few more could pay full retail for treating less serious conditions. 

For that matter, almost none of us could even pay for diagnostic procedures to discover what’s making us sick and how bad off we are. The only thing that makes care possible is a system of health insurance — whether private, public or a blend of the two — with access to all at reasonable premiums, modest deductibles and negligible co-pays.

Seeking clarity and guidance, I grabbed Fred’s paperback and turned to Page 5 and the opening passages of the Declaration of Independence. The second sentence says plainly that we all have been created equal with fundamental human rights that include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It says that people create governments to make sure these rights stay available and accessible to everyone.

Then I turned to Page 17 and the first lines of the Constitution. It explains that “We the People of the United States” are establishing a Constitution to improve how the once-separate colonies of England  can work together as united states of their own new country.

The words describe how America’s founders realized they needed a government to create fair laws and carry them out in a just way, to keep the peace inside the country, to prevent forces outside the country from disrupting our nation, to “promote the general welfare” and to keep these and other “blessings of liberty” available to all throughout time.

So now I’m wondering how people can make any use of their life and liberty if they get sick and can’t afford the health care they need to get better. I find no words in the documents that disqualify children born into poverty or adults trapped in its grasp. The words don’t exclude people, whether in rural or urban communities, whose workplaces have been stripped of decent jobs by technological change, leaving men and women not only without employment but also vulnerable to the random ravages of illness. 

I’m wondering if “the pursuit of Happiness” is just a cruel joke to the family of an aging mother whose identity has slowly been stolen by dementia, to a spouse and children whose husband and father is attacked by ALS, to parents of a daughter critically injured in a car accident, to dear friends of a man struck down by cancer — and all of them needing care that is unaffordable without insurance and still unaffordable with pseudo-insurance that comes with crippling deductibles, a lifetime cap on benefits and co-pays they can’t pay. 

And I’m wondering how any country can claim to “promote the general welfare” without a system that helps all of its people — from the poorest to the wealthiest — deal with the physical, psychological, familial and financial harms of disease, illness, injury and genetic accident that surely no one would wish on themselves or their relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances or even strangers.

Over the past 100-plus years, a few presidents of both parties have addressed the health care challenge and failed or succeeded to varying degrees. Most presidents haven’t tried at all.

But carefully constructed progress, even if imperfect, is the right thing to do. Backsliding is wrong and shameful, and it assaults the values embodied in the founding documents. 

President Barack Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act annoyed ideologues who preferred different values they saw in the documents. But the ACA represented significant progress, albeit with fixable imperfections, in protecting the real-world rights of Americans to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Current Republican proposals — which make 22 million to 23 million more Americans uninsured and leave even greater numbers with the false security of inadequate insurance — would fix nothing. What they would do is undermine the general welfare of the country and seriously damage We the People of the United States.