Imagining Reform

In the midst of the contentious debate about health care reform, just about the last thing that comes to mind is poetry. But at an October panel discussion on health care, health advocacy faculty member Mark Schlesinger read a poem aloud then suggested that poetic, creative thinking could improve the entire health care system. “As part of the reform debate, we can use the tools of the poet” —like metaphor and analogy— “to help people learn how to think about health care beyond their own experience,” he said.

According to Schlesinger, one of the main constraints in the debate about health care is a failure of imagination on the part of policy makers and the American public. He argued that the public has lost the ability to imagine a right to health care or a functional system that could provide it.

The panel, part of the Health, Science, and Society Health Care Reform series, also included health advocacy faculty member Rebecca Johnson and Mark Hannay, director of the Metropolitan New York Health Care for All campaign. Johnson discussed the history of health care in the United States. She explained that in 1764, the citizens of Boston were faced with a smallpox epidemic. Though they knew about inoculation, it was expensive and required a hospital stay. Voters finally decided that everyone had the right to be inoculated, and that the poor would receive the treatment for free. Massachusetts retains this progressive stance on health care to this day, Johnson pointed out.

Mark Hannay focused on the details of the health care reform proposals being considered by Congress, explaining everything from the public health insurance option to inclusion of immigrants. Hannay emphasized that the current legislation would only be the beginning of an ongoing reform process—the first step toward helping people imagine a better system.

Schlesinger also reminded the audience that even if universal health care were to be implemented across the board, access problems would still persist unless creative solutions are found. Whatever changes are made, however, Schlesinger was confident they would be an improvement over the status quo: “If you put a single chimpanzee in a room with a computer, in a week, that single chimpanzee could write a health care reform bill that would do better than the existing health care system. There’s no way policy makers could actually make things work worse than what we have now—and certainly no way they could be any more inequitable.”

—Sophia Kelley MFA ’10