Unthinkable?

My old pal Sonya Huber (author of the memoir Opa Nobody) had a terrific little piece in last week’s Washington Post about the impact of motherhood on her family’s health care costs.

Sonya reports that when she became pregnant in 2002, her job as a graduate student/teaching assistant made $1,100 a month, $986 of which she took home. Her husband, a self-employed carpenter, took home about $900 a month.

Fortunately, her university offered a health plan.

Unfortunately, the total cost of health care for all three of them came to $893 a month.

“What would it feel like to work essentially in exchange for health care?” asks Sonya. “Then I mentally tossed my husband overboard and moved to the next option: employee + child(ren). This amount was more reasonable: It would allow me to pay my half of the rent, with $30 left over for lottery tickets, malt liquor and cyanide.”

Sometimes, obviously, it’s better to laugh instead of cry. But here’s one statistic that isn’t even remotely funny: 46 million Americans today go without health insurance. As a result, emergency room visits have jumped more than 32 percent from 1996 to 2006, the most recent year statistics are available. This roughly parallels the increase in the number of people without health coverage.

Sonya didn’t give up. She searched until she found a state-run program called Healthy Start, which provided coverage to her and her baby. (Her husband, meanwhile, stayed in the ranks of the uninsured.) After she received her first prescription through the plan, Sonya felt “a surge of patriotism.” Walking back to her car, “I felt an intense heat start at my heart, making me lightheaded. I wanted to hug a mail carrier. I wanted to find a government building and kiss its marble surface.”

It’s a compelling personal account of surviving America’s health care crisis–as well as the necessity and efficacy of government-provided health care. (I’ll note parenthetically that Sonya had to search for this program. What happens to low-income parents who don’t have her education and resources?)

Democrats have put health care front and center in the 2008 campaign, which gives parents one more reason to vote in November. Not just parents, but small and medium business owners (and nonprofits) as well: Providing care to employees is becoming incredibly burdensome.

In today’s New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman argues that Americans are now primed for health care reform:

What’s easy about guaranteed health care for all? For one thing, we know that it’s economically feasible: every wealthy country except the United States already has some form of guaranteed health care. The hazards Americans treat as facts of life — the risk of losing your insurance, the risk that you won’t be able to afford necessary care, the chance that you’ll be financially ruined by medical costs — would be considered unthinkable in any other advanced nation.

The politics of guaranteed care are also easy, at least in one sense: if the Democrats do manage to establish a system of universal coverage, the nation will love it.