The Aurora Victims (and the Rest of Us) Deserve a Health Care Safety Net

Jul 31, 2012Tim Price

The Aurora shooting has sparked debates over gun control, but health care reform is just as important for the uninsured victims.

Just 11 days ago, a shooter opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 and injuring 58 others who had gathered for the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. In the wake of these tragic events, a debate has erupted over gun control. (This happens every now and then when we’re reminded that the authors of the Second Amendment might not have meant for someone to be able to buy 6,000 bullets online with no questions asked.) But as we mourn those who were lost and extend our sympathies to their grieving families, we shouldn’t forget that the suffering continues for many who survived the shooting. As Dashiell Bennett of The Atlantic Wire notes, “Most of the wounded are expected to have medical costs in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars and many appear to have inadequate or non-existent coverage.” This burden could add more tragedy to the lives of those who have already experienced too much. But while we may wonder if more sensible gun laws or better mental health care could have prevented the shooter’s rampage, we know for sure that a stronger social safety net could have prevented the financial catastrophe that has followed in its wake.

As hospital bills pile up, uninsured and under-insured survivors of the shooting are being forced to rely on the kindness of strangers. The Associated Press reports that three of the five hospitals treating the Aurora victims are capping their fees or offering them free care. But that still leaves many to bear a heavy financial burden, including Caleb Medley, an uninsured man who was shot in the eye and placed in a medically induced coma. His family is raising private donations to cover what already amounts to over $2 million in medical bills.

The charity of those who have donated is certainly commendable, but while we wish Medley and his family all the best, we have to ask ourselves whether this is any way to run a country. If there’s a crime spree, we don’t pass the hat around to hire a private security firm to defend us. We have the police for that. If our homes catch on fire, we don’t just cross our fingers and hope one of neighbors will be nice enough to lend us their garden hose. We know firefighters will be there to help. So when it comes to medical emergencies, including random events like this one and also the kind that all of us will face at some point in our lives, why should the 50 million uninsured Americans be reduced to begging for help? If the Affordable Care Act is allowed to fully take effect, providing guaranteed coverage, expanded Medicaid coverage, and insurance subsidies for those who need them, that may no longer be the case. But that’s a big “if.”

There’s a story conservatives like to tell about our health care system, and as with so many of their stories, it involves their peculiar definition of personal responsibility. The story goes that if you’re a responsible person, as physically and mentally healthy as you are morally upright, you can obtain health insurance by working hard so that you can either be covered by your employer’s plan or purchase an individual plan. If you don’t have insurance, there are two likely explanations. The first is that you’re an irresponsible bum who wants everyone else to pick up the tab for your medical care. The other is that you’re a Galtian Übermensch who has planned ahead and saved up for your own private medical staff and organ-cloning lab in case of emergency. If you can’t obtain insurance because you’ve been denied due to a preexisting condition or because your employer doesn’t offer it and doesn’t pay you enough to buy it yourself, you don’t fit into this narrative, so please politely excuse yourself and go complain about it in a quiet room.

I last wrote about this argument and the problems with it when I discussed my own brush with death. That experience didn’t just deepen my appreciation for health insurance and my belief that everyone should be guaranteed coverage. It also made me aware of just how flimsy the GOP’s argument is. If I hadn’t had health insurance at the time of my accident, would I have been “responsible” for a driver blowing a red light and running me over as I was crossing the street? Should the firefighters and paramedics who saved me have instead patted me on the (broken) shoulder and said “Good luck with all that”? Are the uninsured victims of the Aurora shooting at fault because they didn’t set aside some rainy day money on the off-chance that a psychopath in SWAT gear would try to murder them while they were enjoying a night out at the movies?

Claims like these clash with common sense and basic human empathy, which is why they’re rarely made explicit. But it may take events like the Aurora shooting to highlight the extent to which they undergird the Republican approach to health care. To be fair, many conservatives would argue that they agree with the principle that everyone should have access to affordable health care but believe the best way to accomplish that is through the free market rather than government mandates. And many on the left would rightly point out that the Affordable Care Act is only a half-measure, a compromise with private insurers that won’t truly guarantee equal access to health care for all. But none of those criticisms are reflected in the policy agenda of the Republican Party, which has now repealed the Affordable Care Act 33 times and offered an alternative proposal zero times. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has explicitly said that covering the uninsured is “not the issue,” while Senator Orrin Hatch admits that the number of uninsured is disgraceful but maintains that “we cannot succumb to the pressure to argue on the left’s terms.” Indeed, why should the debate about health insurance focus on people who need health insurance? We should talk about something more fun, like our favorite vacation destinations or Mitt Romney’s dancing horse.

The Aurora victims may have been gathered to watch a movie about a benevolent billionaire who dedicates his life and fortune to righting society’s wrongs, but there’s a reason such stories are best left to fiction, and it’s not just that Warren Buffett wouldn’t look good in a bat costume. In the real world, we understand that there are vast and complex problems that we can’t solve through private charity alone, and for those problems we require strong public institutions and a reliable social safety net. People shouldn’t have to fear that they’ll be shot dead when they walk into a movie theater, but neither should they have to fear that they won’t be able to afford the cost of survival.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter at @txprice.

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