"Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane." -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1966.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 86 years old on January 15 had he not been brutally murdered on April 4, 1968. But today, as we celebrate his birthday with a national holiday in the United States, we're still reminded that we've not arrived at his mountain top nirvana just yet. If fact, today's national discourse and climate is just as corrosive, bigoted, and jingoistic as the era in which he struggled for the liberation of ALL Americans, not just Black Americans.
And nowhere was Dr. King's advocacy more profound than in his approach to healthcare. For King the denial of quality healthcare was a national crime that rose to the level of "shocking and inhumane." He was right then and he's still right now. This weekend many Americans -- Black, white and others - will pause and remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the many political, economic and social justice reforms that he championed. That's all good.
But beyond the lofty oratory of King's "I Have A Dream" speech and the genteel idolatry of a man who definitely "walked the walk," not just talked the talk, is the deep relevance of his profoundly true statement about healthcare that is not only important for all Americans, but the world community as a whole. For one thing, as only King could do, he's conflated the issue of inhumanity with inequality and injustice in such a simple, yet unadulterated and poignant formulaic statement.
Of 17 high-income countries studied by the National Institutes of Health in 2013, the United States was at or near the top in infant mortality, heart and lung disease, sexually transmitted infections, adolescent pregnancies, injuries, homicides, and rates of disability. Together, such issues place the U.S. at the bottom of the list for life expectancy. On average, a U.S. male can be expected to live almost four fewer years than those in the top-ranked country.
That's nearly 50 years after Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
So in celebrating Dr. King's birth in 2016, we should take stock of how far America has come since 1968 and renew our efforts to make healthcare universal and available to all. The poor healthcare performances and outcomes of the United States are a curious paradox and stand in stark contrast to advances in medical and healthcare technology.
For example, today, America remains a global leader in medical innovation and technology. The US solely developed or contributed significantly to 9 of the top 10 most important medical innovations since 1975 as ranked by a 2001 poll of physicians, while the EU and Switzerland together contributed to five.
Moreover, since 1966, Americans have received more Nobel Prizes in medicine than the rest of the world combined. From 1989 to 2002, four times more money was invested in private biotechnology companies in America than in Europe. The United States also has the most advanced hospitals in the world.
Yet we have some of the most horrible health outcomes of any developed nation while we spend the most money on healthcare. There is a serious disconnect here. The United States life expectancy of 78.4 years at birth, up from 75.2 years in 1990, ranks it 50th among 221 nations, and 27th out of the 34 industrialized OECD countries, down from 20th in 1990.
Now enter the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Maybe President Barack Obama was trying to heed Dr. King's clarion call to eradicate injustice in United States healthcare system. I don't know. But whatever the motivation and despite of the obvious imperfection of the ACA, commonly dubbed "Obamacare," I believe that the intention was and is noble. So instead of trying to gut, reverse and kill the ACA, forward-thinking political leaders should seek ways to improve, enhance and support it so that it ultimately benefits ALL Americans.
Some have posited that the ACA is the most important civil rights milestone since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 asserting that it will close the racial gap in health coverage that is a precondition to eliminating disparities in healthcare.
That said, I believe that King would have offered some constructive criticisms of the ACA. I think that he would have protested that the law did not go far enough towards his vision of healthcare equality. He would have pointed out that millions still remain uninsured and that expensive health plans hurt middle class workers, and the subsidies don't go far enough towards helping poor families afford quality healthcare. But King would not have thrown out the proverbial "ACA baby with the bath water." No, he would have acknowledged and supported the good and positive parts of the ACA.
Here's what he would have been happy with (compliments the non-partisan Kaiser Foundation http://kff.org/ ):
Expanding Health Coverage