It's a landmark week for health reform, when many laws in the Affordable Care Act take effect. As we celebrate, it's a good time to pause, and to remember the larger purpose of our health care system, and of medical care.
Medicine has always been grounded in humanitarian ideals, as reflected in codes of ethics as ancient as the Oath of Hippocrates. The very word "hospital" derives from a medieval French term meaning "shelter for the needy." The humanitarian roots of American medicine are evident in our many hospitals named for saints. The nation's first hospital, Pennsylvania Hospital, was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1751 with the stated purpose of caring for the "sick-poor and insane," with the Good Samaritan as its seal.
The American medical system was once a safety net, a last stop for compassion, a place that always cared. Our current health care system being dominated by profit motives is a new phenomenon, since the industry was deregulated in the 1980's.
In the health care debates leading to passage of the ACA, economic arguments took center stage. After all, who could disagree that this nation could no longer afford to spend 18 percent of our GDP on a dysfunctional medical system which, according to some economists, is rigged to "not pay" for health care?
Laws in effect this week make it illegal for insurance companies to deny medical coverage to children because of a pre-existing condition (a euphemism for "illness"). As of this week, it's against the law for insurance companies to rescind health coverage or to cap health benefits when patients fall sick. These are just a few patient protections that have just begun.
But what does it mean that such basic protections became necessary in the first place?
Nowhere is it more important to get society's values right, than in doctor offices and hospital rooms.
Possibly, the greatest measure of a society, and the greatest indication of its strength, isn't its wealth, but the answer to the following question. If you are injured, unconscious, and wheeled into a hospital, how will you be treated? With compassionate care, centered upon the value of your human life? Or, will you be treated as an opportunity for the profit of others?
This is a landmark time for health care reform.
More importantly, this week needs to mark a new beginning, in which American medicine commits to reclaiming its own life-affirming purposes.