Autumn 2009: Prelude


Heart on sleeve: Town hall meetings on health care reform have tapped into deep emotions.

Travis Hudgons/Special

Say you want an evolution?

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By Paige P. Parvin 96G

When I sat down with history professor Patrick Allitt a few weeks ago to talk about his latest book, The Conservatives, one of my questions for him was how conservatism has benefited America during the past two centuries. He was quick to point out that conservative forces have helped to create an incredibly stable political system and that, in stark contrast to much of the rest of the world, orderly elections rather than violent revolutions bring about regime change in this country.

The past year, though, has seen restless stirrings in the American public that feel like something akin to revolution—or, at least, a new level of political engagement. I wasn’t around in the 1960s, so I can’t say firsthand, but it seems to me that the historic election of Barack Obama may have awakened a spirit of activism that arguably has been sleeping for about four decades. Undoubtedly, 9/11 and the resulting war riveted the nation and sharpened political divisions over foreign policy, and there have been significant skirmishes over issues like gay rights, immigration, abortion, and the environment. But not since the era of civil rights and Vietnam have our TV screens been filled with so many protest signs and such impassioned rhetoric. The looming problem of health care reform has prodded Americans across the spectrum—from seasoned political pundits to people like my parents, who typically keep their opinions to themselves—to come out and speak up.

Of course, this should not surprise us. As several Emory experts pointed out to writer Andy Miller in his story on health care reform, health is an issue that touches everyone personally; it “strikes at the core of who we are as human beings,” as business professor Chip Frame put it. In the bigger picture, the stakes for the U.S. are high: about $2 trillion a year, in fact. But most scholars, doctors, and health leaders agree that change in the system is needed—and it’s coming, one way or another.

Thought leaders in the Emory community and among alumni are helping to shape the debate and find the common ground. Faculty including Arthur Kellermann, associate dean of health policy for the School of Medicine; Ken Thorpe, Woodruff Professor of Health Policy and Management; Paul Rubin, professor of economics and law; and even CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, assistant professor of neurosurgery and a neurosurgeon at Grady Memorial Hospital, are lending their voices to the national conversation around the challenge of the uninsured. The number of uninsured Americans has proved difficult to nail down, but what is clear is that it’s high, and it poses a serious threat to the status quo. “It is dramatically destabilizing the health care system,” Kellermann said.

Ruth Katz 77L is in the thick of the action in Washington as chief public health counsel for the Committee on Energy and Commerce for the U.S. House of Representatives. A longtime public health advocate and scholar, Katz is helping to make sure prevention and wellness programs are being included in reform legislation. “I think everyone agrees that we need greater emphasis on prevention at the individual level,” she told Emory Magazine.

Indeed, that’s something that Newt Gingrich 65C, former Speaker of the House and more recently founder of the Center for Health Transformation, is advocating as well. Associate editor Mary Loftus and Emory photographer Kay Hinton paid a visit to Gingrich this summer at his Washington offices to seek his perspective on health care as well as a host of other topics. Not one to shun healthy debate, Gingrich seemed impressed by the angry, emotional crowds that gathered for town hall meetings around the country this summer, calling it a genuine popular uprising. “I can’t remember any time I’ve seen this level of intensity,” he said.

Maybe not quite a revolution, it’s true; and it appears we have a long way to go to a solution. Call it an evolution. But surely the national surge of interest and engagement is a sign of health.

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Autumn 2009

Of Note


Campaign Chronicle