SAG HARBOR, NEW YORK. — Sag Harbor, New York -- The worst moment of parenting for me -- and I assume for many American fathers and mothers -- was trying to explain to sons and daughters that they were on their own when it came to health insurance and health costs.
They had to take care of themselves when our health plans cut them off after college. They were, if they did not have their own health insurance, we told them, just one accident or illness away from welfare, because any open-ended medical problems could take everything their parents had earned over a lifetime -- a house and some savings, not all that much.
The health squeeze is, I think, the cruelest and most un-American part of America's you're-on-your-own-buddy mentality. My family is close to the top of the American heap. We, after all, do have a house and savings, and we have choices and options in most things, at least the things that have to do with making a living.
If I worry, I am not sure I can even imagine the fears of neighbors without any health coverage, some without any jobs now. And it is un-American, I think, to deny people the option or the right to change their jobs or their lives because they cannot take the chance of giving up health insurance linked to their workplace. Americans, more and more, are prisoners of their jobs, or of their employers, because of company health-insurance plans. They are no longer free men and free women; they can't move on -- the myths of American freedom mock them every day.
In Washington they talk about American ''family values,'' but that depends on which family they're talking about. Congressmen vote themselves and their families the best health insurance money can buy, and unnamed friends of the president collect money to take care of his son when he gets in trouble with the banking laws. But here there are fathers and mothers gambling their families, their children and their own parents against accident or illness.
I was thinking about those things in the context of health-insurance concerns as a catalyst in the amazing election of Harris Wofford last Tuesday as a senator from Pennsylvania. Watching Mr. Wofford, one of the least likely political titans in the Republic, the next morning on the ''Today'' show, I was struck by the fact that he emphasized that the message of his campaign was not just support for national health insurance but for ''National Health Insurance Now!''
Now, not eventually! We all know it is coming. The aging of the baby boomers and health costs beyond the reach of ordinary people guarantee that. So do the interests of corporate America -- bosses are desperate to get out of the health-insurance business because if their companies get stuck holding that bag they will have the same risk of losing everything as any middle-class family.
Senator Wofford sensed, it seemed to me, that President Bush, on one of his next trips to Washington, is going to try the ''study'' route on health insurance. A blue-ribbon, bipartisan, many-hearings, complicated-report commission, probably with Lee Iacocca as chairman -- scheduled to make its final report and recommendations in December of 1992.
The president, the best-cared-for patient on the planet, wants to put off the issue until after his re-election campaign. Then he will declare himself the ''Health President'' -- and do nothing. If he has his way, then the rest of us will have to put off getting sick until about 1997. It will give new meaning and new urgency to the phrase, ''Take care of yourself.''
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.