On Thursday Vermont became the first state to enact a single payer healthcare system for its citizens. It’s not exactly surprising that one of the country’s most liberal states has become the first state to legislate a fundamental right to healthcare for all of its citizens. And, should the federal government allow them to proceed, it is only a few years until Vermont surpasses Massachusetts in the percentage of its population that has access to healthcare.
About a week ago, the New York Times ran a story about the campaign to pass this law. The article focused mostly on one of the main advocates for the law, though it did briefly quote one of the main opponents, a former Republican state senator. For once we weren’t subjected to the same tired old excuses, that government has no place in the healthcare market, meant to protect the healthcare industry.
The argument, also used during the fight over national healthcare reform, was that the new healthcare law, specifically the new taxes that would be necessary to enact it, would drive businesses from Vermont. This is an argument that of course makes little sense; Vermont will be replacing its current healthcare system with a cheaper one. Businesses that currently provide healthcare to their employees will almost certainly see a fall in their expenditures on healthcare. Yes, businesses that do not provide healthcare to their employees will be negatively impacted, but are these the type of businesses one wants in their state?
With that being said, the practical arguments are all rather beside the point. The question of healthcare policy is a question of ethics: our citizens’ lives and livelihoods are at stake. It is a moral failure to ignore that fact, yet we so often do so.
In response to the former state senator’s claim that the healthcare law would drive businesses from Vermont, I have one very simple question, one that has never been answered by opponents of increasing access to healthcare: how many jobs is one human life worth?
We know without a doubt that tens of thousands of Americans die every year for lack of access to adequate healthcare. We also know that untold numbers more are far sicker than they need to be due to a healthcare system designed with little interest in actually improving health. So when an argument is presented in opposition to increasing access to healthcare, it must be weighed against the lives lost and ruined under the current system. In this case, the opponents of reform have placed the potential loss of jobs on the scale. So a rephrasing of my question: what number of dead and sickly citizens of Vermont balances the scale against the jobs that might be lost due to this law?
This debate should remind us that the opponents of healthcare reform, both on the state and national levels, in their crusade to protect the liberty of corporations, have engaged in an endless assault on individual liberty. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive; unfortunately, the defenders of corporations have forced our nation to decide between the two. I for one am glad to see that at least one state has decided that the two are compatible and has enacted a law that both respects human dignity and improves the financial condition of businesses.