I learned my first lessons about injustice and health as a little black girl growing up in segregated Bennettsville, South Carolina. I remember my parents’ and my sadness over the senseless death of little Johnny Harrington, who lived three houses down from our church and died before he reached 10 because his hardworking grandmother didn’t know about the need for or have the money for him to get a tetanus shot after he stepped on a rusted nail. I also remember being awakened in the middle of the night after a black migrant family’s car collided with a white truck driver’s vehicle on the highway in front of our parsonage, and the horror I felt when my Daddy, my siblings and I witnessed the white ambulance driver and attendants arrive on the scene only to leave behind the seriously injured black migrant worker after they saw that the white truck’s passengers were not hurt. And I remember the loss of a playmate who lived around the corner who died from a broken neck after jumping off the bridge at Crooked Creek nearby where many black children swam and many black families fished for food. When I got older, I learned the creek was an outlet for hospital waste and other sewage.
The sorrow and outrage and sense of injustice I felt as a child at senseless deaths and injuries shaped my life’s work. I cannot stand seeing any child mistreated, placed at risk or excluded from essential services because of the color of their skin or the poverty of their parents or grandparents they did not choose. God did not make two classes of children and my Biblical values and my parents’ efforts to live up to its teachings enjoined me to believe each child is sacred. During the civil rights movement it was always clear that health care was one of the basic rights for which we were fighting because it could mean life or death. As my friend and mentor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman.” I would never have believed that decades later Dr. King’s words would still ring true and that after fifty years of hard-earned progress expanding access to health coverage for 95 percent of all children, it could all be ripped away in a heartless game of politics and greed that disregards human life — even the smallest human life. In the wealthiest nation on earth, the fact that we are still unwilling to treat health care as a right available to all regardless of color, income or creed is a disgrace. That child lives are considered political fodder rather than a sacred responsibility by every adult is unjust and shameful.
You, the ever-powerful United States Senate, will soon have a choice to make when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brings the deeply harmful, flawed, unpopular and misnamed Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) — it should be called the Worse Care Reconciliation Act — to the Senate floor for a vote. This draconian bill will unravel decades of progress fighting for more health equity and justice for all. I hope every voter will stand up for children, the disabled, the elderly, and the most vulnerable among us and make sure those who vote against them are held accountable.
At a time when 95 percent of children in America have health coverage after years of laboriously achieved incremental progress with bipartisan leadership and the percentage of uninsured Americans is at a record low, will you vote for renewed pain and suffering or forward progress? Will you vote to end Medicaid as we know it — a lifeline for more than 37 million children and more than 40 percent of children with special health care needs — to pay for a giant tax cut for wealthy Americans and corporations who don’t need or deserve it? Will you vote to rip away health coverage from 22 million Americans and leave millions more paying a lot more for skimpier coverage? Will you vote to undermine coverage for essential services for children and other Americans including those with pre-existing conditions? Will you vote to strip important and popular protections, returning us to a day when discrimination based on age, gender, health status and ability to pay is permitted? Will you vote to deprive millions of Americans mental health and substance abuse treatment in the midst of a national opioid crisis?
You may be wooed with “fixes” being negotiated behind the scenes that tinker around the edges of the cruel, unjust Better Care Reconciliation Act, but make no mistake: it is irreparably flawed and no altering of growth rates and caps, taxes, or creating special “funds” or “risk pools” will fix it. It deserves a swift and decisive death in the Senate if we are to keep any semblance of an American sense of fairness and moral decency alive.
I have just returned from two days in the Mississippi Delta which Sens. Robert Kennedy, Joseph Clark and George Murphy visited 50 years ago where they saw children with listless eyes and bloated bellies from lack of food and health care. Mississippi is one of 19 states that turned down Medicaid expansion money their people need. Health injustice still disproportionately affects people of color but those who will suffer come from every race in every state.
Would you vote to deprive your own children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews of basic life supports? I suspect not. Denying children essential health care makes no moral or economic sense. Healthy children and adults make America stronger and safer. So at this critical moment in our nation’s history, I hope you will stand up for children, the disabled, and the elderly left behind in multiple ways by the politics of greed and self-interest. Please vote NO on the misnamed Better Care Reconciliation Act — a mean-spirited, draconian, un-American step backward that would leave preventable suffering among millions in its wake.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund.