It’s difficult for most students at the University to imagine what it’s like to go without access to basic medical services. Whenever we’re sick or injured, all we have to do is walk into the University Health Services building and doctors are ready to treat us. Conveniently, the service is available to all students. Of course, we pay for our medical coverage as part of tuition, but the price has been widely accepted because those who set and pay tuition have deemed excellent health coverage worthwhile.

Sadly, the U.S. does not work as efficiently as the University — but it may soon be moving in that direction. In his address to Congress last month, President Barack Obama interwove plans for universal health care with his basic formula for fixing the economy. Those who weren’t Twittering in the audience heard an evocative and optimistic plan for curing America’s sick health care system. But there are the ideologues — opposed to what they ignorantly refer to as “socialism” — standing in the way of universal health coverage for all Americans.

Many of these people believe that health care is a privilege rather than an inherent human right. They say that a health care system like the current American model promotes a hearty incentive to succeed in order to provide adequate medical care. But applying this survival-of-the-fittest rationale to the health of human beings implies that if someone doesn’t have the means, they are apparently not entitled to be healthy. Charles Darwin would be so proud. But in a society noted for its uniqueness, modernity and self-proclaimed civilized nature, survival of the fittest is an antiquated perspective.

Other blind rightists carry on about American medicine being on the cutting edge of the industry, and worry that if we socialize health care, its quality might diminish. It’s undeniable that American hospitals, doctors and medical schools are some of the most innovative in the world. But for a profession entirely dedicated to helping people, the current health care system doesn’t appear to be paying it forward.

According to the 2008 Central Intelligence Agency Factbook, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78 years. It is 82 years in Japan, 80.8 in France and 80.6 in Sweden. All told, 29 of the states in the United Nations outrank the United States on terms of life expectancy. If our current system is actually the most fabulous, then how could it be that Americans live shorter lives than citizens of Israel and the Netherlands? The fact that the U.S. is one of the only industrialized nations on Earth that doesn’t provide universal health care probably has something to do with it.

A column by the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof (Franklin Delano Obama, 2/28/2009) points out that the current model of getting insurance from one’s employer did not arise from any sort of brilliant plan for widespread insurance coverage. Instead, businesses started providing insurance as a fringe benefit when workers were scarce during World War II. Today, with millions of people out of work, America can no longer rely on its employers to provide insurance. The current economic crisis only exemplifies why it’s time for national health care policies to change.

It’s odd that right-wing, free-market capitalists have not realized that by placing the burden of insurance costs on the government, costs are then lifted from businesses who no longer have to worry about providing insurance. “Among General Motors’ burdens,” Kristof wrote, “is that it has to pay health costs equivalent to $1,500 for each car it sells.” He then suggests that many foreign businesses do not have to worry about providing such a costly benefit and are therefore have a competitive advantage over American companies.

It is certainly expensive to provide health coverage for all Americans. Tax increases will be imposed upon the lucky few that can afford them. But look at the big picture — a startling number of Americans have to choose between their health and their home and between buying pills and buying food. Affluent Americans should want to help pay for the security of those facing such decisions.

Republicans complain a lot about government spending. But they didn’t seem to mind paying for a war in Iraq — merely a slice of the larger war on terror — at a price of about $600 billion and counting, according to the National Priorities Project. Paying to make the world healthier makes much more sense than paying to complicate it.

Matthew Green can be reached at greenmat@umich.edu.

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