Sunday, June 26, 2011

The sick thing about the U.S. (well, one of them, anyway)

By now pretty much everyone has heard about James Verone, the 59-year-old North Carolinian who robbed a bank for $1 so he could go to jail for health care.

Going to jail to get free meals and shelter has long been a tactic of the homeless. Ever watch "Barney Miller" or "Night Court?" There was always a homeless guy attempting to get arrested for one silly thing or another so he would have a place to sleep and a warm meal for the night.

But this is not a sitcom. This is the unfortunate reality of life in the United States, where we pass laws requiring 40-year-olds to show ID for tobacco, alcohol, and cold medicine, but will not provide healthcare. If you stop and think about it, it really is quite ludicrous.

Last week my friend lost his wallet. His lack of ID was causing all sorts of issues with his tobacco habit. Not that I'm condoning smoking in any way, but the whole scene was just ridiculous. A few days after losing his wallet, he needed cigarette papers (he rolls his own). The cashier at Wilson Farms refused him because he didn't have ID. So I had to go buy them for him. Then a couple days ago he was hanging out at my house and had walked up to the gas station for tobacco, only to be turned down again for lack of ID. Evidently he made a bit of a scene in the process. So again, I had to go buy them for him.

When I asked the cashier for the tobacco, she asked me for my ID, and I said, "I understand my friend was in here a little while ago and got kind of pissed. Sorry about that, but it really is dumb." The cashier, who couldn't have been more than 20, said, "well, we have to get ID from everyone because..." I cut her off and said, "Yes, yes, I know. I used to work in convenience retail, too, so I get it. But really...think about this for a second. We have all these laws to 'protect' us - mandatory ID checks for tobacco and alcohol, compulsory seatbelt and helmet laws, you can only buy certain kinds of cold medicine off the shelf without subjecting to an interrogation, et cetera, and yet...we have no healthcare." She just looked at me for a second and said, "yeah, but I don't want MY tax dollars to pay for someone who gets sick because they smoked."


I didn't want to start an argument, and maybe I was out of line for even starting the conversation, but that statement just about blew my mind. Now, I don't know what this girl's situation is, and I don't purport to judge anyone by the uniform they wear. But that statement, coming from a 20-year-old kid who's making probably not much more than minimum wage selling cigarettes, just struck me as downright ignorant. The "my tax dollars" argument seems to be everyone's sticking point, but how many of these people actually THINK about where their tax dollars ARE going?

You know, I sure as hell don't like that "my tax dollars" are funding a war that I oppose. The girl at the gas station should oppose it, too, since it doesn't benefit her interests at all. She works for Sunoco, the only American oil company in this area that does not source from overseas wells. I don't like that "my tax dollars" keep rapists, murderers, gang leaders, drug dealers, and other criminals fed, housed, clothed, and counseled. I don't like that "my tax dollars" get spent keeping government employees in jobs when I have three college degrees and am making coffee for a living. I don't like that "my tax dollars" are going to pay law enforcement officers who gratuitously speed and run red lights. I don't like that "my tax dollars" are being wasted on under-performing public schools. I don't like a lot of things that "my tax dollars" support. But I don't have much of a choice, do I?

Not wanting "my tax dollars" to pay for someone's healthcare on the basis of their bad habits and lifestyle decisions is a weak - as in, barely detectable - argument. Even physically fit, healthy-eating, non-smoking, non-drinking people get sick. Remember Andy Kauffman? Never smoked a day in his life, but died of lung cancer at 35. What about people who eat too much junk food and get diabetes? What about people who sit on the couch too much and get heart disease? How about guys who work with asbestos and get mesothelioma? Or taxi drivers who get assaulted on the job? Where do we draw the line?

We pay taxes into a system that supports criminals but not sick people. We pay into a system that will build prisons but not hospitals. We pay into a system that will "rehabilitate" prisoners but not provide adequate preventative care to the mentally ill, many of whom end up in prisons because their illnesses were not correctly managed - usually due to the inability to afford it. We pay into a system that gives no incentive to get off public assistance and just keeps putting band-aids on the situation. We pay into a system that gives free health care to politicians, but not to their constituents. Is this really democracy? Where you have to show your ID and fill out a form and practically get fingerprinted to buy a box of Sudafed, but a guy has to rob a fucking bank to get a painful lump on his chest treated?

Really? That's sick.

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