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Susannah Kroeber '11: Thanks, Ted

If you have driven through Massachusetts on Interstate 95 recently, the new highway billboards that mark out the miles cannot have escaped your notice. The recurring mantra, "Thanks, Ted," is but one of a small set of commemorations of a man important beyond his role as senior senator of Massachusetts.

The world for a graduating college student is potentially a little scarier in an era post-Ted Kennedy. Over the past year, as the United States began — after decades of denial — to address the issues of health care, universal coverage and insurance, there have only been a handful of national figures who have publicly supported a radical overhaul in the direction of giving every American affordable health care.

The initial group has dwindled over the months, and with it any hope of the kind of health-care reform liberals have been angling for. This original list included then-Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who were among the more serious proponents of a universal health insurance system. While Secretary of State Clinton may have more television time on some issues, the cause she championed in the 1990s as First Lady has taken a back seat. Since Gov. Richardson withdrew from the presidential race and subsequently from consideration as Secretary of Commerce, his national profile on this and other issues has been drastically diminished.

Some of the other outspoken proponents of universal health care during the 2008 campaign, such as former Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK) and Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), have not succeeded in championing this issue, finding fame mostly as national laughingstocks. The last true liberal crusader for health-care reform, and fittingly one of the first to decide that discussing this issue was not tantamount to political suicide, was Ted Kennedy.

Despite the associations of the term "maverick" with Republicans in the current political climate, Ted Kennedy was, in recent years, the epitome of the liberal maverick. Even as his health failed over the last two years, he was one of the only senators unafraid of the insurance industry's money and lobbying power. Kennedy was ready for the fight against what he rightfully saw as the insurance industry's commercial scheme to maximize profits at the expense of lives.

Ted Kennedy had the name and the opportunity to bring significant change to the way we treat patients in this country, regardless of their ability to pay. He was the lone senator who felt that the insurance companies' desires to turn a profit at the expense of individuals' health was immoral. He knew that the appropriate course of action was to turn health care into an industry not run by private, unregulated corporate interests.

Take a look at President Obama's new allies for health care reform. While Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), are crucial to moving legislation at this point, the end product is not the original proposal the President touted in his initial weeks in office. There is little doubt that if Ted Kennedy were still here, his presence would have been enough to push forward the most essential aspects to the initial proposal: mandatory insurance coverage and an affordable public option to compete with private insurance.
For those of you beginning your job search, even for those of you who are fairly confident in finding a job upon graduation, remember what the current system will cost you.

The national average for employment-based health insurance includes the employee paying 30 percent of the policy's cost. In under a decade, these costs have more than doubled.

An average family of four not covered by an employer pays over $13,000 per year, and these families risk their insurance companies dropping their policies at times when they have the greatest need and medical costs. Some estimate that, by 2018, employment-based family plans will cost closer to $25,000 per year per family.

Every year, 1.5 million people foreclose on their homes due in part to medical bills. In 2007, 62 percent of bankruptcies were linked to medical expenses. Of these, almost 80 percent had health insurance.

There's no doubt that if Ted Kennedy were still serving as a senator, the prospects for families facing health problems 10 years from now would not be so dire. While we study at Brown, an institution that requires students to have medical insurance, it becomes easy to forget that health care in the real world is not guaranteed. It is important not to be blindsided by the realities new college graduates — and others — face on this front. We must consider how to mend the system in an era without the strong leadership of politicians who understand the importance of universal health care.


Susannah Kroeber '11 is a Slavic Studies concentrator from Beijing, China. She can be reached at susannah_kroeber (at) brown.edu




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