Two relatively muted stories – amid countless loud, alarmist, partisan distractions – shone through the new year’s haze for me, at least. They’re not “news” – both were highly expected. But they are what most will look back on in this period in history and take note of.
The first – and easily the most significant – is that millions of previously uninsured Americans can finally get some health insurance. Yes, there are going to be glitches; and yes, there are going to be costs, as well as benefits. Yes, the ACA is far from perfect. But for those without the ability to afford health insurance and not poor enough to be on Medicaid – i.e. the very struggling working poor both parties claim to care about – the relief must be simply overwhelming. One simple anecdote:
Kathy Hornbach of Tucson is not wasting any time before using her new health insurance coverage, which took effect on New Year’s Day. Ms. Hornbach, 57, has an appointment with a cardiologist on Thursday for a stress test. “I’ve had some heart palpitations, and my mom’s side has a history of heart problems starting early,” she said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “So it’s mostly just to double-check that everything is O.K.”
I may be biased, as I have long managed a chronic illness and know what it’s like to fear the loss of health insurance, especially if, like me, you’ve decided to go out on your own and start your own small business. So let me second that. The relief I personally feel as someone who is HIV-positive is overwhelming. I don’t want to put a price on it. Because it is actually a rare event that is priceless. The Obama administration has both repealed the HIV ban on travel and immigration – removing the most crippling psychological fear I labored under for close to twenty years – and also removed the chance that I could one day go bankrupt trying to stay ahead of a deadly virus.
But I’m also encouraged that I will no longer be punished for entrepreneurship with fear of losing health insurance, a punishment the Republican party apparently wants to restore indefinitely. I may also be biased, having grown up in a country with a once substandard and still far from ideal socialized system. But I love America’s free market in healthcare – and believe, despite Republican hostility, that this reform simply extends much of that to many, many more people. Why can we not celebrate that milestone? Politics does not always lead to a tangible increase in many people’s peace of mind, security and health. This time and this year – thanks to president Obama – it has.
Then we go to Colorado, which yesterday marked another astonishing step forward for humane sanity. Anyone can now walk into a dispensary and buy a plant less harmful than alcohol, far less dangerous than nicotine, and a boon to many people dealing with tough chronic illnesses. So fitting, I thought, that the first purchaser was a veteran of the Iraq War:
The first sale, orchestrated as a news media photo opportunity, was made to Sean Azzariti, an Iraq War veteran who has lobbied publicly for legalization and says pot helps mitigate problems stemming from his post-traumatic stress syndrome. Azzariti, who served six years in the Marine Corps and two tours in Iraq, spent about $60 at 3D Cannabis Center for an eighth of an ounce of “Bubba Kush” and a pot-laden truffle.
Now, of course, the Obama administration has next to nothing to do with this, and its reluctance to grapple with this issue has been Clintonian in its caution. But they have not stopped this, as a Romney administration would have. For me, both reforms mean a tangible increase, not decrease, in the freedom of Americans. Without your health, freedom to do anything is impossible. Without reliable health insurance, entrepreneurship is discouraged, job mobility is frozen, and economic dynamism is restrained.
And now, with Americans able to use a drug – already ubiquitous – without draconian, pointless and racially unjust prohibition, we have another small burst of freedom. Neither of these developments was inevitable. Both remain fragile. But if you care about real freedom – and not an abstract, ideological version of it – this is a day for celebration, not cynicism, for hope, not depression.
(Photo: Sam Walsh, a budtender, sets up marijuana products as the 3-D Denver Discrete Dispensary prepares to open for retail sales on January 1, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. Legalization of recreational marijuana sales in the state went into effect at 8am yesterday morning. By Theo Stroomer/Getty Images)