Senator Ted Kennedy’s passing marks the end of an era in Washington. The man called the Liberal Lion was one of the few remaining links to a time when the Kennedy family was American royalty. Kennedy’s public image was torn between glossy-eyed nostalgia and the recollection of an unfortunate event on Chappaquiddick Island, but nevertheless, Kennedy never allowed his detractors to prevent him from fighting tooth and nail for his political causes.

In his historic career in Washington, health care was Kennedy’s signature issue. Writing for Newsweek just a month before his passing, Kennedy called it “the cause of my life.” Now that the senator has died and the public health insurance option is still lingering on the Congressional table, Democrats are using Kennedy as a symbol of reform. Robert Byrd, the only living senator to serve longer than Kennedy, wants to rename the health care bill in honor of the fallen lion. Last month, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi promised reporters, “Ted Kennedy’s dream of quality health care for all Americans will be made real this year.” Undoubtedly an effort to counteract the influence of town-hall protestors and appeal to the fiscally conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats, leaders of Kennedy’s party hope the senator’s death will rally support for the foundering bill.

It makes sense that Byrd and Pelosi would use the death of a famous senator who continually pushed for health reform as a rallying point for Democrats. But what they are conveniently ignoring is how Kennedy’s own actions completely undermine a premise that is vital to the left’s argument for a public health care option.

Kennedy was diagnosed with malignant glioma on May 20, 2008. Only 50 percent of patients survive one year after diagnosis, and that drops to 25 percent after two years, according to the Washington Post (Kennedy’s Cancer is Highly Lethal, 05/21/2008). Kennedy, a fighter all his life, decided against throwing in the towel. Instead, he endured brain surgery, intensive radiation and chemotherapy treatments, procedures which cost thousands of dollars. Luckily, Congress is famous for offering top notch health care. Members have a choice of several private insurers and plans based on their health needs. The Senator’s dogged perseverance to extend his life by utilizing all possible options is admirable, but it is also a prime example of what simply couldn’t happen under President Barack Obama’s proposed insurance plan.

Obama has said again and again that a major factor behind the failure of the current health care system is the execution of needless or futile medical procedures. Among these procedures, Obama specifically mentioned surgeries for terminally ill patients. During a primetime ABC broadcast from the White House this summer, he said, “Maybe you’re better off not having the surgery, but taking the painkiller.” Obama’s plan aims to cut health care costs by eliminating operations that have a very low chance of actually improving a patient’s life — just the kind of procedures that Senator Kennedy chose to undergo.

Obama, and everyone who is in favor of public health insurance, needs to ask themselves two important questions. Would Kennedy, if he were a private citizen of average income under Obama’s public plan, have been able to pursue these life-extending procedures, given his age and condition? Would Obama have been willing to look Kennedy in the eye and tell him he would be better off taking the painkiller in order to save the system money?

As the days progress, liberal politicians will use the memory of Ted Kennedy to sell public health insurance. What they will universally omit, however, is how lucky the senator was not to have been covered by that plan. It should come as no surprise, though, that this discrepancy between rhetoric and action means nothing to Washington Democrats. They will continue to push a public insurance plan that they wouldn’t be caught dead joining themselves. When Byrd and Pelosi invoke Ted Kennedy and his soaring rhetoric to sell their plan, they should instead look at audacious steps Kennedy took to extend his life.

After all, Kennedy was a survivor. And despite Obama’s attempts to convince us all to “take the painkiller” instead of fighting back, surviving is still what health care is all about.

Chris Koslowski can be reached at cskoslow@umich.edu.

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