Posts Tagged ‘US healthcare’

Sunday 8 November 2009

Early morning in Philadelphia. From my hotel room I watch the sun rising over the Delaware River.

Yesterday I saw a different sun rising – a motif carved on the back of the chair in which George Washington presided over the signing of the Constitution of the United States of America after months of wrangling in 1787. At the time, Benjamin Franklin, sage and polymath, whose knowing presence is everywhere here in historic Philadelphia, observed, ‘now, at length, I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun.’

Yesterday I switched on the TV during an ad break. First up was one of the interminable screamers from the NO lobby in the great healthcare reform debate. What about the $800 billion bill? All those inflated taxes? Can they guarantee you can keep your own doctor? Your current insurance company? Can they promise healthcare won’t be rationed? Persuade your congress representative to vote NO for the Public Option.

Then in quick succession: an ad for the statin Crestor to control your cholesterol – ‘if you have difficulty paying for medication, Astra-Zeneca may be able to help;’ and Reddi-Wip real ready-whip cream – dessert just isn’t dessert without Reddi-Wip.

Today I switched on the TV and everything has changed. The House of Representatives has passed its sweeping healthcare reform bill by a narrow margin – 220 votes to 215. Although it still has a few hoops to jump through before it becomes law, the way is now paved for the biggest extension of healthcare insurance coverage since the introduction of Medicare 40 years ago. The vast majority of the 46 million Americans without insurance will, by law, have to be covered. The federal government will offer its subsidised insurance scheme (the Public Option) in competition with the established health insurers. Radical change will happen through a largely market-driven shakedown within a framework set by government.

Later today I will be attending the Grand Opening of the Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association – a colloqium several thousand strong, held this year in Philadelphia’s magnificent convention centre which, rather like Manchester’s, was once a busy railway terminus.

You can guarantee the place will be abuzz with talk of the healthcare vote. The atmosphere will be electric. It will light up the whole conference. I doubt there’ll be a soul there who isn’t absolutely thrilled at the prospect of such a huge change to US healthcare. It is truly momentous.

Barack Obama’s powerful pre-vote speech invoked the call of history – rather in the same vein as the ringing statements of the Founding Fathers here in Philadelphia.  And, fingers crossed, it seems to have been answered. As Ben Franklin might have said, methinks the sun, at long last, shows promising signs of rising.

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Here I am, enjoying a little summer frivolity up at the Edinburgh Fringe, and it seems to me there isn’t a stand-up standing who hasn’t made some play with swine flu or obesity or the crack-down on binge drinking. From Rhod Gilbert to Rich Hall, from Jason Byrne to Stewart Lee, they’ve all had a go at public health one way or another.

Meanwhile quite a few of the musical cabarets are getting in on the act too. The Oompah Band are sending up the credit crunch with lots of brassy references to redundancy, repossessed homes and the horrors of being down-and-out. Fascinating Aida do a hilarious song about health and safety on children’s outings and a wonderful calypso about the impact of climate change in the Shetlands. And yes, the comedy group I’m singing in, Instant Sunshine, can’t resist joining in with a number about the perils of the demon drink.

But what a strange time I’m having. One minute I’m talking seriously on the radio, down the line from the BBC’s Edinburgh studio, about ham sandwiches, candle wax and the risk of cancer, and the next I’m up on stage singing a silly song about a showjumper who’s lost his horse. One minute I’m on Sky News debating the joys of the NHS versus the inequities of the US healthcare system, and the next I’m impersonating the Queen opening a desperately unfinished Olympic site in 2012.

But hey, that’s showbiz for you. Instant Sunshine’s stuff is gently humorous, utterly inoffensive and, let’s face it, a little dated. We first came here in 1975 and have been back every other year since, thanks to a small but faithful following. There have been thousands of acts on the Fringe, but we are probably the longest-serving. Certainly our queue has by far the most zimmer frames.

 It’s all great fun and utterly frivolous. And I suppose, if it makes people happy for a while, it’s public health – kind of – isn’t it?

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