Health Policy: Is Altruism Dead?

Recently in this space the me-first word was brought up. (It does not abbreviate well.) Might as well say it out loud: health reform could surely be sunk by the Me-Firsters, those who would put personal desires above the greater good, whether those desires are for better pharmaceutical or insurance industry bottom lines or for some corner of personal coverage, senior or otherwise, that might be sacrificed in the future.

I am not above having those desires. My husband and I actually have a tiny bit of stock in a drug company thanks to some mergers and buyouts I do not pretend to understand (I also don’t mess with the family stock portfolio) and thus a decline could cost household income we can ill afford. Plus, I would hate having the excellent care I get from Kaiser (thank you, Medicare) curtailed and would be seriously bummed if suddenly stuck with paying 100% of my post-cancer meds. But if that, or something equally draconian, is what it will take to get health coverage for my currently-uninsured friends, I would like to go on record as supporting whatever we must do to get access for all. This is not noble, just minimally humane.

There are noble people out there, however. They sign up for Teach for America, they volunteer in nursing homes and day care centers and hospice programs, put in long hours at food banks or take to the streets in other, similarly un-chic endeavors.

Re the current health reform brouhaha, there are also noble people, or at the very least altruistic people, all over the country; you just don’t hear a lot about them. On August 19, for example, President Obama urged supporters of health reform to “speak facts and truth” in what he said was a “contest between hope and fear,” and tried once again to refute some of the misrepresentations still widely circulating. His comments were themselves fairly widely circulated. But unless you happened to run across them in this space you would not have known they were made to 140,000 members of faith communities and/or supporters of community-organizing nonprofits. The people of Sojourners, Faith in Action, PICO and other groups that put together the 40 Days for Health Reform conference call are not in it for personal gain; they happen to believe everyone in this country should have access to health care. The next day, Nancy Pelosi held a press conference reiterating her determination to keep a public option in the final health bill. But again, unless you happened to see it here you would not have known the event was sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council with a lot of help from its friends in the San Francisco Organizing Project.

When the religious right goes on a tear against abortion or end-of-life choice (or for that matter, when the religious left goes head-to-head with its ideologically-opposed brothers and sisters) it makes news. When community organizers stage high-profile protests, the same thing happens. What does not make news is the enormous effort made by people of good will just to promote the common good — most recently, health reform.

Some opponents of Obama and his reform bills even have an altruistic bone or two. The reportedly calm, if badly misinformed, Bob Collier, featured in a front page New York Times article August 25, allowed that “we’ve got to do something about those people who can’t get insurance.” He qualified that later: “There has to be a safety net there. But I don’t want that safety net to catch too many people.” Somehow, Mr. Collier wants to separate out the “truly needy” from the “lazy and irresponsible people who play the system” and wouldn’t we all. The Times said that Mr. Collier gets his information from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge, none of whom I see as particularly altruistic. I would surely welcome him to True/Slant.

But the people cited above, people in faith communities (including many I disagree with and some I can’t pronounce), progressive nonprofits, community organizing groups and others just roaming the streets being kind, these people seek access to health care for everyone without worrying about who deserves it and who does not. A great many of them worked hard to put Obama in office, and are now working hard for health reform for no reason other than it is the right thing to do for someone else. Might be unrealistic but they keep at it.

My money is still on those people.

6 responses

  1. Fran, I think that the extreme plays better and the people who do the work you talk about, go under the radar.

    Great piece.

  2. Yes, altruism is something to aspire to and to cover in the media. But I don’t think health care reform is about altruism. The system is just plain bad–for a lot of people, not just the uninsured.

    My parents have top of the line health insurance but never go to see a doctor. They’re afraid that the doctor will discover something that won’t be covered and they say they’d just rather not know! They’re a bit extreme, but we all know that even people with health insurance go bankrupt due to medical expenses! That’s preposterous and simply doesn’t happen in other rich countries.

    So, again, altruism is wonderful, but if we actually want to pass health care reform in this country, Democrats need show how it will help even the self-interested among us. That said, I really enjoyed reading this!

    -Liz

    • Thanks, Liz. Tell your parents (I’ll bet I’m older – 76 – than they are)that knowing everything you can about your health, INCLUDING HAVING YOUR ADVANCE DIRECTIVES DONE, ALL OF YOU!, and then doing what you can to keep it is the only sane way to stick around as lively and long as possible. We’ve all got to advocate for ourselves, our families and most importantly for those who don’t now have access to care.

  3. Fran. thanks for this. How do you square the me-firsters with the altruists — or those who care for the collective as much as for themselves? I see this as so very American, that even the best impulses get buried under anti-government hyope; i.e. if it comes from or is run by the government it is de fact lousy and when run by for-profit entities de facto good. Who can change a mindset that is 200 years in the making?

    • Well, I actually believe there are a lot of semi-me-firsters, and some can be brought along perhaps. Isn’t it interesting that most people complain (to one degree or another) about their (private) health insurance, yet everyone loves (government-issue) Medicare? Wonder if that connection is EVER going to take hold.

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