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The President as Caregiver in Chief

As in many things, Harry S. Truman set the standard.

When a Washington music critic wrote that his daughter, Margaret, “cannot sing very well,” Truman warned the writer that he would need “a new nose and a lot of beefsteak for black eyes” if they ever met. During World War II, he chaired a special Senate committee that discovered hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fraud and waste and led the effort to reclaim it. As president, he made a series of historic decisions that defined the notion of presidential responsibility—“The buck stops here.”

Just as important, when his mother, Martha Ellen Truman, at 94, broke her hip and then had a stroke, Truman moved the White House to Kansas City’s Muehlebach Hotel so he could visit her Grandview, Mo., home each day. While in Kansas City, he also outlined an ambitious plan for expanding the nation’s public health services.

Then as now, the way people treat their family reveals their priorities. And Truman’s story underscores the important link between personal experience and public policy.

The American public has placed health care on its priority list for the upcoming presidential campaign. The challenge posed is who among the candidates has the instinct of a Truman to draw on personal experience and fashion a vision for the health care system of the 21st century.

We know three things about health care in America: It costs too much, we’re not getting what we pay for, and people are compromising their own well-being because of soaring prices. Health care consumes 16 cents of every dollar, prescription drug prices outpace inflation, and Medicare premiums have doubled in seven years.

Yet we have lower life expectancy and higher child mortality than other industrial countries.

Look at the consequences. There are 47 million uninsured Americans. Half of Americans with health insurance say that because of higher prices they delayed doctor visits; two-thirds say they’ve limited them to only serious conditions or symptoms; and 28 percent say they skipped or did not fill prescribed medications.

That brings us back to presidential priorities. Thank goodness for mothers. In the tradition of Mattie Truman, the mothers of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and John McCain have helped galvanize their children’s attention on the importance of health care. The candidates’ attitudes, sharply divergent, help shape the debate over a crucial issue in the 2008 election. What is the role of government, of employers, of workers? How are costs contained? Is universal coverage mandatory? Our commitment is to make sure this stays a front-burner issue, even if some candidates don’t want to discuss it.

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