Historians Will Have the Last Word on Health Care Reform

You keep hearing the word “historic” applied to the health care bill that finally made it to the floor of the Senate early this morning. Approval of the bill is a foregone conclusion. And once that hurdle is passed, it will go to a committee of House and Senate representatives to be merged with the House bill. America will have something that could be described as “universal health care,” at last.

camelWhen I think of this process, the saying that comes to mind has nothing to do with history. Here it is:

A camel is a horse built by a committee.

But I’m being disrespectful. Supercilious. The legislation is “historic.” Not great, but historic nonetheless.

For most of the 20th century, successive Democratic presidents tried to work out some kind of plan to provide health care for all Americans, but the various vested interests used the country’s convoluted system of governance and the power of the pocketbook to block their efforts. Perhaps it is fitting that the breakthrough has occurred in this new century, a century that saw the unlikely election of America’s first black president. Perhaps this century will prove historic in other ways as well. So much needs to be done. So much needs to be undone. We shall see.

The health care legislation is shaping up to be pretty anticlimactic. In the tried-and-true American way, it boils down to bribery of the vested interests (with tax money) to obtain a few crumbs of comfort for the oppressed. But there’s no gainsaying the fact that 30 million-plus Americans who did not have health insurance will now have coverage. And a few baby steps have been made toward reining in the private insurers’ rapacious practices. The argument is being made that this is a beginning, not an end, that the mighty oak of health care reform will grow out of this unprepossessing acorn.

Of course, the vested interests aren’t going to sit by and let this happen. To the contrary, they are probably retrenching as I write, planning a vicious campaign to reverse whatever reforms survive in the final legislation.

health careIt’s the American way, I suppose – an endless wrestling match between a multitude of conflicting interests. I suppose that President Obama recognizes the inevitability of all this, and conducted a campaign based on pragmatism and patience because he saw it as the only way to inch forward. How frustrating he is! How disappointing! How wise.

Is that how historians will see it? Sadly, I won’t be around to find out. I will go to my grave grumbling about the concessions Obama and his allies made to interests that I regard as “the forces of evil.” I will not soon recover from my disillusionment with an American political system I once held in high regard.

But there are 30 million or more Americans who might see it differently. To some of them, it will probably be the difference between life and death. To others, it might be a reprieve from financial hardship – even bankruptcy. That’s not a trivial matter.

As I ponder the possibilities, I can’t help feeling that Obama will probably be vindicated, that historians will conclude he did what was possible, after all. And “even angels can do no more.”