We have heard of the 40 million-plus uninsured Americans so many times that we're inured to the number's cruelty until something in our ordinary life drives the point home.
This was my experience yesterday, when the receptionist at the HMO asked me for my membership card as I arrived for treatment. Then she added "and a picture ID."
Being the sort of fellow who will one day get arrested for making forbidden jokes in this trivially overserious society, I wondered out loud who would want to pretend to be as sick as I felt.
"Someone without health insurance," she said, in a tone that unmistakably bespoke experience.
Suddenly I felt like the rats fleeing the Saigon U.S. Embassy in 1975, protected by gates and Marines from a crowd jostling to get out of town by sundown. Without further ado, the well-spoken, mild-mannered HMO gatekeeper had welcomed me in and made certain to keep others out.
Someone else would be denied a human right to which I acceded merely because I am me. In case you wonder at the term "human right," here it is in article 25, paragraph 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care ...
We are a society that violates human rights to the point that we ration medical care.
Incidentally, the latest figure at this writing for the number of Americans lacking health insurance is 46.6 million, or 15.9 percent of the U.S. population (2005) -- in absolute or percentage terms, this is a record high.
This is not something the richest country in the world need live with, like the common cold. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agree. There are cures for the health insurance problem that fall well short of revolution.
In Australia, Britain, Canada, and most of Europe, the number and percentage of the population without access to regular health care for economic reasons is zero.
There is no good reason the United States can't match that -- except greed and selfishness.