Sen. Ted Kennedy considered health care reform “the cause” of his life. Throughout his 47 years in the U.S. senate, Kennedy fought for universal comprehensive coverage some 15 different times, working closely with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee to pass health care reform bill this year, even while undergoing cancer treatments in Massachusetts.
Looking over today’s health care battle field, one wonders if reform would be in a different place under Kennedy’s leadership. As Ezra Klein correctly points out, “what was important about Kennedy’s career, though, was that he managed to marry compromise and principle. He was not a believer in lonely stands that underscored his purity. Nor was he a believer in compromising simply for the sake of compromise.”
Indeed, in 1971, Kennedy proposed an alternative to President Richard Nixon’s plan to expand private health insurance coverage. Kennedy offered a single-payer like plan that would have expanded coverage to every American, covered 70% of medical expenses, eliminated cost sharing and capped medical expenses. By 1974, the Kennedy proposal morphed into a plan that built on the existing employer system. Employer health benefit plans were unaffected, but Americans without coverage would have been eligible for the national plan administered by the Social Security administration.
Kennedy never allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good; his passion for health care reform grew out of personal experiences and a deep commitment to justice and equality. He weaved his personal experiences and years of public service into a powerful and compelling narrative for health care reform. As a public servant, Kennedy received government sponsored health insurance coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program. But for Kennedy, that privilege only highlighted the inequality of America’s health care system. In this speech before the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, Kennedy recalls the time he spent in a children’s hospital in Boston where his son lost his leg to cancer. While his government-sponsored health insurance covered the treatments, the other families — either uninsured or underinsured — paid some $3000 every single week:
And I listened to these families whose children had the same kind of infliction as my child had. And they said, “Look, we’ve sold our house. We have the $30,000. We have $20,000. We are able to afford it for 3 months, for 4 months, for 5 months. What kind of chance does my child have to be able to survive?” I knew that my child was going to have the best because I had the health insurance of the United States Senate. And I knew that no one, no parent, no parent in that hospital had the kind of coverage that I had. That kind of choice, for any parent in this country is absolutely unacceptable and wrong, my friends.
Kennedy explained that “for the 15 times that I have fought on the floor of the United States Senate that we ought to have universal, comprehensive coverage, listen to the voices on the other side who have universal and comprehensive coverage say ‘No, it’s not time. We can’t afford it. It is the wrong bill at the wrong time.'”
Today, opponents of reform are making the same argument. But as Kennedy reminded us in his 1980 concession speech, “for all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” Kennedy spent his life fighting for health care reform, now it’s up for progressives to deliver on that promise.