Watching the current debate in Washington, it’s tempting to think of health care reform as something radical and new - an issue that could force a profound shift in national identity. But America has been through this already. More than 200 years prior to this year’s push for a new national health policy, Americans were already becoming incensed about how they paid for health care, and who got access to it.
Health care in Colonial America looked nothing like what we’d consider medicine today, but the debates it triggered were similar. The danger of smallpox and the high cost of its prevention led to divisive questions about who should pay, whether everyone deserved equal access, and if responsibility lay at the feet of the individual, the state, or the nation. Epidemics forced the early republic to wrestle with the question of the federal government’s proper role in regulating the nation’s health.
Colonial leaders and ordinary people alike possessed a similar sense that a proper solution to these issues would determine the brightness and shape of America’s future. At times conflicts over public health threatened the social and political fabric of communities. Did these rowdy Colonials, with the aid of the Founding Fathers, solve these dilemmas? Hardly. But their observations, questions, and compromises offer a useful lesson for what we can expect as we find ourselves again with health care in the forefront of the national conversation.
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