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For the Life Of Us

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When is a health care reform debate just a debate? Just about all the time, though the likelihood of something actually happening in this post-millennial moment are high enough to drive people to town-hall meetings where they passionately defend their American right to once again do nothing.

I know much of this passion is straight political theater--unconvincing theater, at that--scripted by business interests and the right wing. But just below all the antics is a genuine though unfortunate uneasiness on the part of Joe the Plumber about the prospect of everybody--black, white, brown, working, nonworking, whatever--having access to something we've all come to equate with a nice McMansion and two cars in the garage. Politicians can insist all they want that health care is a right and a necessity; we all know that it's something you buy, like a good education, right? Which means that only certain people are supposed to have it. Deserving people, people who work full-time, people in neighborhood associations whose elected officials actually listen to them on a regular basis; everybody else can go hang. That's the real American way, this divvying up of privileges and status that almost always fall along lines of color, class and credit history. Democracy and equal outcomes and all that jazz run a distant second.

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And yet. Sometimes the ideal is bigger than the reality, even when reality wins. Recently, the Forum (Great Western? Fabulous? I lose track) in Inglewood hosted a weeklong free clinic to people who needed services but couldn't afford them--i.e., people without health care. Offered by the traveling nonprofit Remote Area Medical, the clinic was the first to be staged in a big American city rather than the Appalachians or some isolated part of a third-world country, where RAM normally operates. I spent a few hours in the Forum during that time and was truly moved, and angered, by the scope of need we continue to ignore at our local and national peril. I know all the damning statistics--millions of Americans uninsured and under-insured, an old trend that accelerated under Reagan and the Bushes and that now, in the so-called era of change, seems to have finally reached a critical point.

But stats are abstracts, one more thing we've become inured to in this information age. People are not. And the people who covered the floor at the Forum last Thursday, patiently waiting for everything from root canals to eyeglasses, defied all the easy ideas about health care on both the right and the left. I talked to a young black college student who has a bright future but no health coverage to ensure she makes it to that future; a staid white Republican and Vietnam vet from Orange County who told me that politics is cold comfort to somebody whose teeth hurt but can't get them looked at; a sixty-something Cuban immigrant who was so happy to get a set of dentures, he crunched pretzels with the wonder of the former puppet Pinocchio trying out his flesh-and-blood body for the first time.

It was all heartening and even humorous stuff, from the fixit stories to the dedication of doctors and others who made the clinic happen. Despite the enormous lines that formed hours before the clinic opened its doors every day, good cheer prevailed. Many grateful clienteles said that RAM ought to set up camp in Inglewood and elsewhere on a regular basis.

But if that happens, we will have lost. If we need to call upon the selfless actions of RAM ever again, that means we will have decided to once again do nothing.

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