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A shot in the dark

Catie and Caleb Medley went to the doomed midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises." It was a movie they'd been looking forward to for a year, her father said. Gunfire rang out. The bullets missed Catie, who was pregnant. Caleb was shot in the eye. On Tuesday, their son Hugo was born. Caleb is listed in critical condition, and the cost of emergency treatment for his head wound has already reached $2 million. The Medleys were uninsured.

According to a useful article in the Christian Science Monitor, "three of the five hospitals treating victims said Wednesday they will limit or completely wipe out medical bills." A fund has been established to help the Medleys, and it has passed $250,000. This is all heartening. But if Caleb Medley had been the victim of a drive-by shooting instead of the Aurora catastrophe, it's unlikely a hospital would have waived costs.

The Monitor observes: "Nearly one in three Coloradans, or about 1.5 million, either have no health insurance or have coverage that is inadequate... The highest uninsured rate was among adults between 18 and 34 and many of those injured in the shootings are in that age group."

In any other nation in the first world, the medical bills of the Medleys, including her stay in the maternity ward, would have been covered by Universal Health Care. But UHC (and its tentative first step as the Affordable Heath Care bill, or Obamacare) remains fiercely opposed by a vocal minority in the U.S., and the Republicans have vowed to repeal it in the next session of Congress, if they can.

I received more than 650 comments on my blog, "The Body Count," which was about gun control. I read all of them. Let's set guns aside for the moment. Many of the comments were about health care, and one of the arguments frequently heard was: "I don't want the federal government taxing me to pay for the medical costs of people who don't care enough to provide for their own costs."

A lot of Americans are discovering that it's not a matter of "caring." They can't afford good comprehensive health insurance, or are unable obtain it even if they could. Many readers write about the excellent health care benefits they get through their jobs. But young people entering the job market are discovering that many companies no longer offer health plans. Other companies have adopted a deliberate policy of laying off senior employees with health care, and replacing them with young uninsured people. Some help-wanted ads request "less than five years of experience."

In the meantime, the cost of health care continues to rise. Are you a little surprised that a man could run up $2 million in hospital costs in two days? A million dollars a day? What does that cover? I know from my own experience that hospitals overcharge steeply for some commodity products, like latex gloves, absorbent pads, feeding tubes, even gauze. When you order such generic products from an approved medical supply house, they're sometimes twice as expensive as the identical item on Amazon. But your insurance will only reimburse you for the supply house. It would rather pay more there than less on Amazon. Does that look to you like a cozy arrangement in the health industry?

But what about the idea of paying taxes to cover someone else's medical costs? That's always the way it's expressed; I rarely hear from people who don't want other people paying for their costs. In our imagination it's always other people who get sick. I have a reader who tells me he's never been sick a day in his life. I tell him that's interesting from an autobiographical point of view, but otherwise not relevant. I can assure him that unless he's killed in an accident, sooner or later he will most surely get sick, and sooner or later he will most surely die.

Are we our brothers' keepers? Many people who resort to scripture are under the impression that we are not. They forget that it was Cain who said he was not his brother's keeper, after murdering Abel. In a similar sense, if our fellow citizens die because they have no access to competent medical care, they argue that they are not their keepers.

They overlook Mark 12:31: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." It seems to me that Universal Health Care is a powerful example of loving your neighbor as yourself. I quote from the Bible for a particular reason. Many of the opponents of Universal Health Care identify themselves as Christians, yet when you get to the bottom of their arguments, you'll find them based not on Christianity but on Ayn Rand capitalism. Financial self-interest and the rights of corporations are more important to them than loving their neighbors. If millions of Americans cannot afford or obtain adequate health insurance, then that is somehow their own fault. There is a greater good to be served--the well-being of health care organizations and insurance companies.

Wealth itself is seen as a good. A rich man is somehow helping his society by growing richer. We must cut the taxes of the wealthy and increase the taxes of the middle class. It never occurs to those who support such tax policies that the very thing is happening that they fear so much: They are being taxed to support someone else--in this case, the rich, not the poor.

I believe that society benefits by improving the life of the average citizen. It benefits when everyone has access to health care. When I'm told "we can't afford it," why is it health care we can't afford, instead of tax cuts for the rich?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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