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.

Rallying the Faithful for Health Reform

President Obama sought to strengthen support for health reform among one of his core constituencies Wednesday afternoon, the community of believers. He served as keynote speaker of sorts, in a conference call with some 140,000 members of faith communities around the country. The call sponsor’s title, 40 Days for Health Reform, suggests those communities are mobilizing for action. 40 Days for Health Reform includes progressive interfaith groups PICO National Network, Sojourners, Faith in Public Life and Faithful America; and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Web sites of the first four list members as adherents of faith traditions including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Urging his listeners to “spread facts and speak truth,” Obama said social change has always involved “a contest between hope and fear.” He reviewed some of the more glaring misrepresentations that have been made by opponents of reform — government take-over, “death panels,” funding for abortions — labeling them “ludicrous,” and said the response to “not wanting government bureaucrats meddling with your healthcare” is that “we don’t want insurance bureaucrats meddling with your healthcare.” There were no surprises, or new ideas floated. Director of White House Policy Council Melody Barnes fielded a few pre-selected questions from listeners but dodged any, such as one direct query about a public option, of substance. Still, among a small group of listeners surveyed after the call everyone was enthusiastic about the happening. “Nobody’s expecting policy pronouncements on a conference call,” said one; “what we need is just the recognition of how many good people want good health reform now.”

The call was clearly designed to rally and encourage the troops of the faithful. And those troops, many weary of watching debate co-opted by the religious right, may indeed now be reinvigorated. Most of the call was taken up with prayers or comments from religious leaders, or stories of tragedies caused by the current healthcare disarray. There were plenty of Biblical touchstones — the call lasted for 40 minutes — for listeners of Abrahamic faith traditions, and more than one of the speakers expressed the certainty that it is God’s will for all of His (or Her) creatures to have affordable, quality healthcare. Sponsoring organizations and participating individuals are gearing up for action in the weeks ahead toward that end.

The call can be heard on the 40 Days for Health Reform site. It may not change any Republican minds, but it does indeed claim a pretty powerful ally for the cause.