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MARCUS: Is health care reform socialism?

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Morton Marcus

Mellow Marzipan is known in the hills of Owen County, near Spencer, as Aunt Mellie. She’s pushing 90, yet no one knows whose aunt she is.

She called a few days ago, all agitated.

“Sonny,” she said, “I want to be on one of those death panels. I’ve written to our senators and to Joe Biden (the president should be too busy to fuss with me), but no one has answered.”

“There are no death panels,” I said. “That’s just a lie made up to discredit the health care bill moving through Congress.”

“Well, there should be,” she said without being mollified. “Too many old folks just hanging around. I figure there should be panels made up of old folks who understand being old. They could put some juice into people who aren’t doing something and keep them going. And if folks won’t, then just let them go to the recycling center.”

“Now, Aunt Mellie,” I said, “we’re not going to have people making terminal judgments about the usefulness or productivity of other people. That’s not the way we do things in this country.”

“Well,” she said, “I never did see any use to spilling spoiled milk after the cow left the barn.”

“I don’t know what that means,” I said.

“Never you mind,” she said, “you’ll learn. Now, however, we need to get this health care thing done right. I say if a person can’t take care of herself or himself or whatever, we shouldn’t be paying for anything other than catroscopic illnesses.”

“It’s catastrophic,” I said.

“Those, too,” she added.

“Aunt Mellie,” I said, “I think that we need to see health care as we see fire protection. If your house is burning, the fire department doesn’t ask before they arrive, ‘Is it serious? Was your behavior in any way responsible for it? What’s your income? Are you insured?’ The time is coming when everyone will recognize that, as every structure in a city is entitled fire department services, so, too, each individual should receive appropriate health care, whether or not he or she can pay for it.”

“I never thought of the fire department as a form of socialism,” she said.

“Appropriate health care is not socialism and doesn’t have to be provided by government employees. We need to be those compassionate neighbors and responsible citizens you talk about so often,” I said. “In time, people will understand that we all contribute to support health care just as we all pay for the fire department. We never know when we or someone in our family will need those services and, if our neighbors have troubles, we don’t want their affliction to spread to our house.

“Now many people act as if they are immune from physical illness and immune also from economic distress. Seventy years ago, we recognized two aspects of economic need: losing a job and becoming unemployable. To assist these people, we established Social Security and unemployment compensation.”

“I wasn’t for those programs back then, but they seem to have worked all right,” Aunt Mellie said.

“Now we see medical wonders are not inexpensive,” I continued, “but medical bills can be crippling. So we are going to add health care payments to our economic toolbox because we know how devastating even short-term illness can be to a family’s income.”

“What about the death panels?” she asked.

“They don’t exist except in the minds of some very twisted people,” I said.

“Well,” she announced, “I’m not bothering with you any more today. I’ve got to find my Medicare card and catch that rural bus service that takes me to the doctor’s office.”•

__________

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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