The sick status quo

Cable news channels have devoted hours of airtime this week to the rancorous debates about healthcare reform at town halls across the country, supplementing the coverage with alarmist commercials about rationing and government-run care. Notably, opponents of the reform effort haven't tried to defend the status quo. Instead, they've spent their time painting exaggerated pictures of what the system might look like in the future -- a world of "death panels," delayed treatments and lethal cost-cutting. In short, their nightmarish depiction of "Obama-care" looks a lot like a Hollywood version of an HMO, but with seniors instead of starlets.

It's too bad the television cameras haven't been trained instead on the Forum in Inglewood, where the Remote Area Medical Foundation opened a temporary clinic this week. The scene makes a compelling case for a healthcare overhaul, putting a human face on the dry statistics about uninsured and underinsured Americans. People started lining up Monday for a chance to be treated Tuesday by volunteer doctors, dentists, nurses and other healthcare providers. About 1,500 people were seen that first day; after hundreds more camped out overnight, the clinic ran at full capacity again on Wednesday. It's scheduled to stay eight days before heading to its next stop, a reservation in Utah.

The turnout in Inglewood was huge despite the lack of publicity about the clinic, indicating how great the need is for more primary care. These are the people whose first stop for treatment tends to be the emergency room, often after a routine problem has festered long enough to become a complex (and expensive) one. Expanding health insurance to cover this group wouldn't be cheap, but it's a prerequisite to the changes in delivery and payment that will help improve care and control costs.

Remote Area Medical's experience here also illustrates one of the best features of our healthcare system: the humanitarianism of its professionals. But unless the system is reformed to bring basic healthcare services to all Americans, far too many will continue to depend on the kindness of strangers.

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