Opinion: Health care a fundamental birthright | SierraSun.com

Opinion: Health care a fundamental birthright

Andrew Whyman
Mental Health Matters

Andrew Whyman

I do hope all of you thoroughly enjoyed July 4, America's Independence Day.

After all, it's our premier holiday, an opportunity to celebrate the very founding of our republic.

It was on July 4, 1776 that we proclaimed separation from our then overlord, Great Britain, and proceeded to sign the Declaration Of Independence, one of the more magnificent documents trailing through the long history of mankind's invention of nationhood.

Said the Declaration, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

And to secure these rights, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, a national representative government was created.

For hundreds of millions worldwide, America has historically been that "shining light on a hill," the freest, most productive, and creative nation in world history.

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So I trust you had the means and the opportunity to engage in joyous celebration of the day; parties, feasts, speeches, fireworks, communion with family and friends.

Several memorable July 4 celebrations immediately come to mind in my own story: Gathering with family on the bank of the Charles River in Boston while listening to the Boston Pops Orchestra delivering the 1812 Overture, including the cannons, fireworks filling the night sky; reclining on beach chairs reveling in Incline Village's fireworks over the years; lying in a Napa Valley field watching the pyrotechnics with old and new friends; bayside on Cape Cod inhaling a fish dinner and watching the show overhead. All good.

Unfortunately for me, in recent years a certain nostalgia, a dash of bittersweet, has slid into the festivities.

Something is amiss in this great country, something insidious, a creeping, strangling fog washing over us for some 30 years now.

It's not pretty: The highest incarceration rate in the world, with people of color disproportionately represented, and now an attorney general who, in the face of abundant science to the contrary, claims that violent crime is increasing and that we need more citizens in cells; widening income disparities, with more very rich and more poor and very poor; an increasingly corrupt political class bending to the will of great wealth; an opiate addiction and overdose epidemic of historic proportions, and increasing rates of homelessness even reaching into the minimum wage class.

Hard to fathom, harder to accept. Homelessness and housing insecurity have been increasing for more than 10 years. Currently, well over 700,00 people are homeless. Yet people without a roof over their head die some 40 years earlier, on average.

More that 50 percent of the homeless population suffers from mental illness and/or substance abuse. Untreated chronic illness, the ever-present threat of assault, and suicide pervade this sorry world.

Millions are forced out of their homes every year now: In 2016 youths under 25 were 31 percent of the homeless population. In a survey of 4,000 students at 10 community colleges, 13 percent had no place to live, and 20 percent were hungry while one-half of all students struggled with food and/or housing insecurity.

Added to this headache-inducing litany of woe is the sorry spectacle of our current political overlords working feverishly to remove health care benefits for the millions of Americans who can least afford to lose them; Medicaid benefits, we are told, are busting the federal budget, so let the states decide if they can pay for them.

Never mind that real people will die without health care benefits. And rural hospitals that rely heavily on Medicaid will close. And even the limited mental health and substance abuse benefits newly available through Medicaid will cease just when diagnoses of opioid use disorders have surged some 500 percent in the last seven years, and 59,000 died from an opioid overdose in 2016.

All these callous, cruel, heartless proposals, we are told, are a necessity in view of the federal deficit. Tell that to all of us making more than $200,000 a year and those fortunate enough to derive investment income: both groups will get a tax deduction should these proposals become law.

Mean-spirited doesn't begin to capture what's going on here. Really, it's simple. Either you believe that health care is a fundamental American birthright, or you believe that it isn't. If it isn't, people die needlessly.

Maybe next July 4, I won't be having any of these sad thoughts. But maybe I will.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at adwhyman43@gmail.com.