The Patients’ Bill of Rights: Is What They Want What They Need?

John A. Marcille

Making subtle distinctions is a talent not usually associated with mobs. That doesn’t mean that the “people,” so celebrated by poets and demagogues, aren’t often right. In this country, we like to think that they’re more often right than not. Carl Sandburg said in his poem, I Am the People, the Mob: “Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?”

Passage of the Patients’ Bill of Rights, which may be imminent, may not go down as one of the great works of the world, but rather as the fruit of mob judgment: “HMOs — bad.” There was also some demagoguery: “Nothing persuades an HMO to do the right thing like the fear of liability,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Funny how he neglected to mention that the health system had hemorrhaged under fee-for-service medicine, that most people are satisfied with their benefits most of the time, and that many of the larger HMOs are already providing, as the Washington Post notes, “much of the care that a federal law would guarantee.”

Kennedy certainly didn’t mention the fact that we are faced with a national paradox: medical costs that won’t stop rising, and HMOs reluctant to say “no.”

Have plans brought much of this upon themselves? Absolutely. Some have made some penny-pinching and callous decisions that have allowed enemies to portray them as penny-pinching and callous. The system’s dismal PR record is right down there with the oil industry and the FBI crime lab.

However, it should be noted that Sandburg’s poem was published in 1916. In the following 10 years, he would turn an historian’s gaze upon one of our nation’s most fascinating leaders and produce a monumental biography of Abraham Lincoln.

Biographers, of course, don’t have to agree with everything their subjects thought or said. (They don’t have to like their subjects much, though there isn’t much doubt that Sandburg greatly admired Lincoln.) It would be interesting to find out what the poet thought of Lincoln’s line: “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”

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