Molly Ivins on Universal Health Care

Politicians have been debating and dancing around universal health care for 25 years.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Politicians have been debating and dancing around universal health care for 25 years.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Editor’s Note: This month, we’re reprinting some of our favorite Molly Ivins columns in celebration of her birth month and the upcoming wide release of Raise Hell: The Life & Times Of Molly Ivins, the documentary about her life. This column from 1994 remains prescient today.

by Molly Ivins
August 5, 1994

It wouldn’t be so bad if health care reform failed this year, if we could only think that the debate about it had been as serious as the problems. I figure that’s why Hillary Rodham Clinton is so intense about it—she went around the country having all those meetings listening to people whose lives have been hopelessly botched by the current system, or non-system, so she knows what the stakes are for average people.

But in Washington, deep thinking on health care reform comes in forms like Senator Bob Dole’s statement: “I’ve got a party to worry about.”

In Washington, you hear blithe statements like, “Oh, a lot of people who don’t have health insurance are in their 20s. They’re young and healthy, they don’t need insurance and they don’t want to spend the money.” Ever talk to a 23-year-old with no insurance who’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis? That’s just one of the diseases that tends to show up when people are in their 20s.

Molly Ivins, The Texas Observer

The other day at the Southern Legislators Conference, as I was attempting to point out that Canada has a sane, effective and cheap system of national health insurance, I was told: “Canada practices low-tech medicine. Why, in Thunder Bay, women have to have babies with no anesthetic.” Right there in Norfolk, Virginia, I thought I heard the sound of several million Canadians politely choking. (Canadians are almost always polite.)

It takes a lot to startle a Canadian. Understatement is their national art form, calmness is their national mode, and their national motto is “Now, let’s not get excited.” Canada, Land of Low Blood Pressure. I think they even have a law against rolling their eyes. Even so, I wish you could have heard the reactions over the phone from successive layers of bureaucrats at McKellar Hospital in Thunder Bay, Ontario, when I called to ask if the assertion were true. They variously and politely gasped, strangled, wheezed and giggled.

Senior Vice President William Dunlop said, quite calmly, “We have aboot (that word is one way you can identify the well-camouflaged Canadian, who might otherwise pass for an especially reticent Vermonter) 2,400 births a year in Thunder Bay, and you may rest assured that all are well-handled. The only way a woman would go through childbirth without anesthetic is if it were at her own request.” Great—someone started a natural childbirth class in Thunder Bay, and it comes out as “no anesthetic in Northern Ontario” in our health care debate. Dunlop thinks the story may have gotten started because a local anesthetist is refusing to do epidurals, but that doesn’t mean natural childbirth for all.

Whatever you hear about the Canadian system, just keep in mind that polls show more than 97 percent of all Canadians think it’s wonderful, in a restrained way.

As though there weren’t enough idiocy on this issue already, we now have great posturing about what “universal health insurance” means. “Could someone explain it to me?” pleads Dole, touchingly bewildered by the term after a lifetime in office. Try “available to all.”

Does that mean every single person in this country will have a health insurance card? Nope. Not everyone over 65 has Social Security, either. Ever talked to a census taker? I followed one around one time in Utah as she tried to track down mountain men who hadn’t come down off the ridges in 20 years, moonshiners who fled in terror at the first “Hallooo, I’m from the government,” and a truly curious set of citizens we found living in a cave. None of them had a permanent address.

You couldn’t got 100 percent of the people in this country to come in for free ice cream. Get real. Hell, we have citizens who don’t believe in doctors, citizens who go to witch doctors, practitioners of holistic medicine and Christian Scientists in this country. We’ve got citizens on macrobiotic diets, aloe-vera juice drinkers, people who believe Pat Robertson can cure hemorrhoids and, in general, more health nuts, faddists and cranks per capita than any other nation on the face of the Earth. (I don’t actually know that for a fact, but I think the only thing we lack is people who believe rhinoceros horn cures impotence and the French national fetish about the liver.) There are even people in this country who think Tex-Mex food is bad for you. Poor benighted souls.

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Molly Ivins’ official editorial run at the Texas Observer lasted six years, from 1970 through 1976; unofficially, it lasted a little longer—her syndicated columns appeared in these pages and she remained a stalwart advocate of the magazine until her death in 2007. Her irreverence and irrepressibility continue to help define the Observer today.


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