A tragic death from cancer in the Jewish community last month made me reflect on a flaw in President Obama’s health care reform plan.
Marina Akhten’s story began in 1993, when she came to Los Angeles from Russia with her young daughter, Daria, and started looking for work. Her search took her to Refugee and Immigrant Services at Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), where she loved their mission so much that she started volunteering. Eventually, she was offered a job in the organization.
As a refugee herself, Marina connected with her clients’ difficulties as they tried to adapt to a new world. But Marina didn’t just bond with her clients; she also bonded with her co-workers.
“She was one of those rare people who did what she said she would do, without fail,” said friend and colleague Tatyana Kodner.
This bond with her co-workers would prove helpful when Marina was diagnosed with lymphoma in February 2008. Because her extended medical treatment meant she could no longer work enough hours to remain on the payroll, Marina was at risk of losing her medical coverage.
So what did her co-workers do to help? Well, they could have complained and started petitions and made a stink — which might have gotten them on the evening news or in the Los Angeles Times. But instead, they did their homework and discovered this unusual fact: if they gave up their vacation days, those days could be credited to another employee.
So, one after another, as if in a Frank Capra movie, the co-workers chipped in and donated their vacation days to Marina. They donated so many days that she remained on the payroll and continued receiving acute medical care — right up until the end.
When Marina finally lost her battle last month, she lost it to the disease, not to the absence of medical care.
What does all this have to do with President Obama’s health care reform? Two things: one, the president was right to point out, as he did in his address to Congress and the nation last month, some of the inequities in the current system, where people could lose coverage when they need it most.
But, two, he missed the opportunity to empower us. He told plenty of stories of people victimized by the system, but he never told stories of quiet heroes like Marina Akhten’s co-workers at JVS, who took the initiative and found their own way to help.
In other words, in my view, the biggest hole in President Obama’s speech was that he didn’t ask us to do anything. He told us what he would do, but he never told us what we could do.
Never mind donating our vacation days for a co-worker. The president could simply have asked us to take better care of our health and included incentives in his plan for doing so.
It was as if he were saying: “Go ahead and smoke three packs a day and eat 50 grams of artery-clogging trans-fats at every meal, but don’t worry, the millions it will take to keep you alive will be taken care of by your government — and none of it will add a dime to the deficit or your tax bill.”
The president never mentioned, for example, that “75 percent of the $2.1 trillion spent in this country last year on health care costs were for chronic diseases such as heart disease that are largely preventable and even reversible by changing diet and lifestyle,” according to renowned expert Dr. Dean Ornish.
In his zeal to sell his plan, the president even set up a conference call with 1,000 rabbis asking them to help promote the plan in their High Holy Day sermons. I wish one of the rabbis had given him a little sermon around this idea:
In Judaism, rights and obligations go hand in hand.
Yes, we have a right to a better system and to a government that will do what it can to keep us all healthy.
But we also have an obligation to do our share. There are obviously some things we can never control or prevent about our health, but we can still do things like provide support for a co-worker when a disease like lymphoma strikes, teach healthier habits to our kids, help care for our parents in old age or replace that glazed doughnut with a hike in the canyons.
When the president and his advisers scratch their heads at the alarming drop in his popularity, they might consider the simple fact that when you make things look too easy or too good to be true, a lot of people just don’t believe you, no matter how good your intentions.
President Obama has talked about personal responsibility in the past, but he has failed to do so on health care. He could have boosted his credibility by paraphrasing one of his heroes, President John F. Kennedy: “Ask not only what your country can do for your health, ask also what you can do.”
It might be politically risky to be so honest, but it treats people like grown-ups and empowers them. Just ask the employees at JVS who helped a single mother named Marina Akhten add a few precious months to her life.
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