That scene is a free, makeshift dental clinic for the uninsured. It was mobbed – as it would be in a developing country. Except it's right here in Tennessee, where many of the working poor are uninsured, and where the state is perfectly happy to keep it that way. For these strapped, working-class folk, Obama's demonized healthcare reform is a godsend. Pity almost none of them in this part of deepest red America have heard of what it could do for them:
It was hard to find visitors to the clinic who would not benefit directly from the law. Barbara Hickey, 54, is a diabetic who lost her insurance five years ago when her husband was injured at his job making fiberglass pipes. She gets discounted diabetic medication from a charity, but came to the clinic to ask a doctor about blood in her urine.
Under the law, she would qualify for Medicaid. Her eyebrows shot up as the law was described to her. "If they put that law into effect, a lot of people won't need disability," she said. "A lot of people go onto disability because they can't afford health insurance."
Tom Boughan, 58, came to the clinic for glasses and dental work, with a sci-fi novel to pass the time. He's been without coverage since being laid off from his industrial painting job last year, which means he's paying $400 every few months for blood work for a thyroid problem.
This piece was supposed to run on the front page of the Washington Post. They turned it down went cool on it on the grounds that it was too long and too supportive of Obamacare. It's worth remembering before we all go into a Beltway frenzy about SCOTUS and the ACA – that this issue affects people's lives in the most graphic and direct way imaginable. It becomes the difference between living with chronic illnesses or being healthy. It can be the difference between a short life and a long one.
I've evolved on this issue. In general, I find a huge amount to admire in America's private healthcare system and wouldn't want to alter its essential private structure. But its simply staggering inefficiencies, massive costs, and failure to provide health to the working poor persuaded me of the need for reform. And at some deep level, when I consult my conscience, I find denying people healthcare different than denying them a job or a mortgage or a car or an iPhone, or any other material goods. Without your health, you can enjoy none of this.
I remember my instant, sustained reaction when my friends became sick and died for so many grueling years. It was inconceivable for me then that these people should be left to suffer and die in a country as wealthy as we are. If that's true of my friends, it must also be true of those I have never known, whose bodies are no different than mine, whose pain is no less acute, whose lives are no less sacred. You can call this the Golden Rule if you want. Or Christian principles.
(Photo: by Jim Myers/AP/KHN as part of a slideshow of the poor and the sick in Tennessee you can watch here.)