Let's be fair to U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. Contrary to a widespread impression, the libertarian-minded Paul did not say during a recent Republican presidential debate that people without health insurance should be left to die. It is only his idea of "freedom" that might cause you to think so.
This impression was unfortunately encouraged by some of his less-temperate supporters during the recent CNN/tea party presidential debate in Tampa, Fla. Moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Paul, a medical doctor and fierce libertarian, if a seriously ill young man who had decided on his own to forgo health insurance suddenly needs expensive hospital care, should the state pay for it?
Paul, shaking his head, lectured, "That's what freedom is all about. Taking your own risks. This whole idea that you have to take care of everybody "
At that point Paul was interrupted by a burst of applause from the tea party-filled audience.
"But congressman," Blitzer persisted, "are you saying society should just let him die?"
"Yeah," shouted at least two voices in the crowd. But Paul, to his credit, said, "No."
So who pays? Paul asserted that in his experience, friends, neighbors, churches and charities step forward to help.
Unfortunately, in many cases people who can't afford medical insurance often fail to receive care, or get the care and can't afford to pay the bill.
In fact, Ron Paul knows this tragic circumstance intimately, according to a story first reported by the Gawker website a day after the debate. In June 2008, after Paul ended his first bid for the presidency, his former campaign chairman, Kent Snyder, died of pneumonia at age 49 without health insurance. His illness left his family with hospital bills totaling about $400,000, which they could not pay, according to a campaign aide quoted by CNN.
And, unlike Blitzer's example, Snyder wanted insurance but was denied affordable coverage because of a pre-existing condition, family members told the Kansas City Star in 2008. His family and friends, including Paul, raised $50,000 on a website, according to CNN, but the rest of the bill had to be passed on to Snyder's estate.
Under the Obama health care law, a pre-existing condition would not have prevented Snyder's coverage. But when CNN correspondent Brian Todd pointed that out, Paul, true to form, did not waiver from his staunch opposition to "Obamacare."
Paul is great at attacking the inevitable mistakes that the government, like any big organization, makes. He only waxes vague as to where people in desperate need are supposed to turn when, well, stuff happens.
Such is the sad state of domestic policy debate when tea party conservatives have captured the Republican Party's soul. Today's GOP emphasizes spending cuts with little regard for the value of what is being cut. Yet voters have shown a preference for mending problems, not ending the services.
It would be nice if we could all turn to our friends and families to pay medical bills, as Paul suggests. But even when others try to help with the bills, they often fall way short. Somebody gets left holding the bag. High costs eventually get passed on somewhere, often to the rest of us in the form of higher insurance premiums and medical costs. As a result, we all pay sooner or later for the holes in the national safety net.
This election will show us how much the country really has swung toward the Ron Paul vision and away from what we used to call common sense.