At pharmacies across America, the elderly line up at dawn. They come with their canes and walkers, their wheel chairs, their oxygen tanks. The more prepared bring their deck chairs. Some are accompanied by their sons or daughters; others, too weak to stand in lines, dispatch their sons and daughters to stand in for them. One woman died when she collapsed while waiting in a long line.
They are hoping to get a vaccination against the flu. For the young, the sick, and the elderly, a flu shot isnt a luxury. It can be the difference between life and death. Their immune systems simply arent hearty enough to fight off the flu.
But now they are at risk. When the license of a British subsidiary of Chiron company had its license suspended because of feared contamination, the U.S. lost half of its flu shot supply. Many doctors find it impossible to get the flu; pharmacies have no way of managing the demand.
Doctors are now alarmed. The hospital system is already stretched to the limit with emergency cases and the growing numbers of uninsured who fill up emergency rooms. The shortage of nurses is already severe. Now doctors must figure out what to do with the dramatic increase in severe flu cases that are certain to follow in the next months. Hospital administrators are up in arms that the administration has done nothing to help figure out how to handle this emergency.
President Bush warns that the public health system leads to rationing, but vaccines are controlled by private distribution networks and theyve already started rationing -- by hiking the price up dramatically. Med Stat, a distribution company, hiked the price up ten times in response to an urgent request from a Kansas City pharmacy that wanted the shots for nursing home patients. The federal Center for Disease Control has asked only vulnerable categories of people get the drugs, but it has no power to regulate price gouging or to direct distribution.
Just as he does in Iraq, the president ducks any responsibility for the mess. No one is at fault, the administration spokespeople say, for outsourcing U.S. vaccinations. President Bushs campaign lurches into ideology, not solution. Its the fault of the trial lawyers, they say. The reality, however, is that drug companies dont like vaccinations because the profit margin is very slim, the demand varies dramatically depending on the severity of the flu season, and the government doesnt provide guaranteed purchases. Drug companies prefer boutique drugs under patent for which they charge the maximum, and profit the maximum.
Why are our young, our old and our sickly at risk? There is one inescapable reason: the U.S. has for years starved its public health system, and crippled the powers of its public health agencies. This administration, so much in the pocket of the insurance and drug companies, is particularly neglectful of public health, even despite September 11 and the new emphasis on homeland security.
That is why the hospitals are so strapped, and cant easily deal with a flu epidemic. That is why no one paid attention to how dependent we were on two companies. That is why the disruption of supply in 2000 led to exactly no remedial action by the Bush administration. Thats why the Federal Drug Administration relied solely on the companys assurances that its product would be safe, not even bothering to call the British regulators. That is why no one has made even rudimentary plans to deal with the coming health crisis.
Everyone should take a look at the distress among our seniors as they line up and pray they can get a flu shot. This is the result of neglecting shared security systems and letting individuals bear the risk. Similarly, the presidents privatization plan for Social Security that cuts guaranteed benefits and creates individual risk accounts would leave more seniors in poverty. His medical savings accounts would leave the sick and the elderly bearing more of the costs. His top end tax cuts leave working people with a greater share of the taxes, while suffering cuts in vital services such as the public health system.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney want to dismantle the systems of shared security that provide Americans with some protection and replace them with individual risk. You are on your own, Jack. But Americans who are not wealthy fare far better when we share the risks rather than face them alone. Thats reflected in the popularity of Social Security and the vital necessity of a serious public health system. And thats the choice on November 2, not simply between Kerry and Bush, but between shared security or individual risk. The seniors now lining up across America understand how important that choice can be.
-- Issued October 19, 2004
Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., is founder and President of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
Published in In Motion Magazine October 25, 2004.
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