Monday, February 26, 2007

A price for what -we were told- is priceless

A bouquet of gladiola in my left arm, I enter a pharmacy (non-Americans read: supermarket) this morning for some needed supplies. As I was strolling past the ostentatious aisles stocked with luring merchandise I came across an older gentleman, who, having pushed his half-empty cart on the side was counting -with religious devotion I might add- a handful of single dollars. Prescriptions are getting more expensive I said to myself.

And this got me thinking. If there is something I have been struggling to come to terms with in my five years in the United States is this expanded notion of unpredictability of human life: you live today, you die tomorrow. Bearing striking resemblance to narratives about everyday life in post-Saddam liberated Iraq, this statement describing life in Massachusetts and other (wealthy) US states is neither a puzzle nor a trap: it is true and should be read literally - this is what makes it also very disturbing. Because health insurance is largely privatized -with the burden of responsibility befalling to the citizens and (increasingly less) to employers- those citizens unable to pay the fees -which can be anywhere around $3,000 upwards- may have no coverage whatsoever and hence, simply, die.

Apparently a few thousand individuals -those on the very bottom of the income echelon- will be spared the 'death' sentence in Massachusetts [capital punishment does not have to do necessarily with one's moral standing] thanks to a recent state initiative to fully cover the insurance costs of those making less than $9,800 a year. At the same time, the "rest of the poor" may well contemplate whether it is better to die of a disease or of an accident overnight as opposed to suffering a slow painful psychological death, such as the one that comes along with loans, interests, eviction, homelessness... and mind you the latter guarantees death in freezing Massachusetts.

If in reformist Massachusetts one can spot a modern Hamlet contemplating "to live or not to live", news from France comes as a soothing, much-needed, reminder of the fact that humans have not crossed communal life off of the dictionary - yet. As of December 1st, 2008, homeless and all those living in a poor housing situation will be entitled to some decent housing.

To compare France and the United States on an equal footing would be unfair and a proof of ignorance of the different paths that the countries have taken with respect to social policies. Conversely, it would be wholly wrong to overly accentuate the particularistic elements that account for the American experience by not being critical vis-à-vis what constitutes a direct assault on human dignity; or how differently could one describe the fact that "the little less poor" -those not covered under said legislation- "decide" not to buy insurance because the cost of the penalty is cheaper than the monthly payment for the insurance?

Part of the confusion arises from the fact that Massachusetts is "reformist" or "different" and hence requires that people buy insurance. Similarly, the proposition for free insurance for the poorest of the poor is considered too "advanced" and costly by other states with greater proportion of poor. Interestingly so, many such states voted President Bush a second time into office, aware of his agenda priorities: let us not forget that John Kerry was, after all, a senator from Beantown [a nickname for Boston].

References and Links

I thank Dimitris Stefosis for the link and the original idea: Massachusetts spurs health-care debate

On housing in France: Un toit pour tous. Enfin, peut-être...

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