I got some disturbing news today.

My uncle, age 59, who suffers from Type 2 Diabetes, nearly had a massive heart attack yesterday. Today, the doctors have informed him he will need to undergo triple bypass surgery.

Though this news is disturbing enough – as though there are great success stories with open heart surgery, no one wants to watch a loved one undergo this – my uncle is also one of 45 million Americans who are without health insurance.

A little bit of background: for the past 30-odd years, my uncle has driven a taxicab, for the same cab company in the same small Upstate NY town, for barely above minimum wage, plus tips. He’s lucky in that he has first shift, Monday through Friday, but unlucky in that holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas he often has to work. He never seemed to mind too much. He lives modestly, in the same small apartment for as long as I can remember. He buys used cars outright, and drives them until they die. Last year, my family gave him my deceased grandfather’s old station wagon.

Still, he doesn’t have the money to purchase independent health coverage. This is could be a recipe for disaster for anyone in this bind, however with him having diabetes, it’s worse. And now, the inevitable has happened – he is facing a medical catastrophe.

Of course, one could say it was his own decisions – he chose to drive a taxi and not work at, say, a local factory that would offer him pension benefits and health insurance. However, my uncle is not a deadbeat. He’s worked his whole life – working every holiday and sometimes, for extra money, he’d pick up a Saturday here and there. He would drive his cab 50-60 hours a week, his only real indulgence being lotto tickets.

My uncle represents the typical uninsured American: someone from a working class background, with minimal education and a blue collar job, who has worked hard his whole life. He makes too much to qualify for Medicaid, or other forms of public assistance, and he’s also the type that wouldn’t think to apply for it, anyway – why would he? He has everything he needs, as far as he’s concerned. He never craved for “bigger and better,” he appreciated what he had. Now, not only does he face financial ruin from the surgery itself, but driving a taxi offers him no paid sick leave, and he’ll have to be out of work for weeks.

He’s lucky, in that he has a large, supportive family who will do all we can to help him through this. However, so many of that 45 million don’t have such a strong support system. The Center for American Progress outlines just exactly how large a number 45 million really is. However, they neglect one key statistic: 16 percent. In other words, nearly one-sixth of Americans are without some form of health insurance. One in three young adults – usually recent college graduates – are without health benefits.

How can we call ourselves the leader of the free world when access to decent, affordable health care is considered a perk of the privileged and not a basic right? It isn’t even about the cost (though hospitals having to eat emergency care for patients who cannot pay is hardly a cost-effective solution), but a public health issue. After all, the more people who have access to health care, the healthier your populous is.

There has been some progress at the state level. Maryland passed fair share health care legislation, which requires large employers to pay a “fair share” of employee health insurance. Perhaps a more equitable (and all encompassing) solution is Massachussettes health care plan, which heavily subsidizes private HMOs so that everyone not only CAN have access to health care, but is REQUIRED to have it. In New York, we have the Healthy NY program (and there is currently a bill before the Governor that would expand the availability of this program), which is somewhat similar to Mass.’s plan, except it is not as heavily subsidized and is not mandatory.

It’s a start. But it’s not enough.

In a country as large as ours, there are no easy answers. The number of uninsured Americans trumps the entire population of Canada, which has socialized medicine. Would socialized medicine work in the US? It’s hard to say – 300 million people is a lot more difficult to keep healthy than 31 million. It might work on a state level, as education and other social benefits are doled out.

What IS evident, though, is that we need to get past talking and start doing. There is no excuse for Americans to be without health care.

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