Health insurance worries reminiscent of Vietnam

August 25, 2004|By Roberto Loiederman

HERE'S A RIDDLE: What do health insurance and the Vietnam War have in common?

If you answered that they are both featured prominently in Sen. John Kerry's campaign, you're right, of course. But that's not the answer I have in mind.

Let me explain.

My older son - a Generation X rock-'n'-roller - recently accepted a regular job with benefits, even though he would have preferred to continue his hit-and-miss musical career, buttressed by tutoring gigs. So he now has a 9-to-5 job, as do many of his contemporaries who have made radical changes in their plans in order to get work with nonprofit corporations or with large companies or with the government. Some of my son's friends have gotten married to people with jobs like that. And one of the main reasons is health care coverage.

When I hear these stories from my son and his friends, it strikes a chord. In my generation, which came of age during the 1960s, many of us also made important decisions based on a single issue: the Vietnam War.

I'm not talking about anything so dramatic as going to Canada or declaring oneself homosexual in front of the draft board. I'm referring to what a lot of people in my generation did: desperately look for ways to extend a deferment or to put oneself far down in the draft lottery.

Many people of my generation, once they finished with their bachelor's degree, went to graduate school or professional school to avoid having to go to Vietnam. A close friend of mine claims he became a lawyer instead of a poet because going to law school kept him from being at the top of the draft lottery. I'm sure that there are many other middle-aged lawyers who did the same. Some of them may even be working today in the highest reaches of government.

In the 1960s, there were other ways to put yourself far down the draft list, and they involved drastic changes to your life, such as getting married and having children. As is well known, many in my generation did that. They may claim that they would have done it anyway, but I wonder: How many of those who got married and had children - because the draft board was breathing down their necks - regret having been forced to make such a decision?

The same thing is happening now.

Just as people of my generation made life choices based on the fear of having to go to Vietnam, so people in their 20s are making choices because they're afraid of not having health care.

And that is one more reason why there should be national health care system: so that young people, when facing important choices such as career and marriage, can base those decisions on what they want to do with their lives, not on what they're afraid might happen to them.

Roberto Loiederman, who grew up in Baltimore, is co-author of The Eagle Mutiny.

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