Should the government be responsible for ensuring everyone gets the health care they need?
It's a debate that has raged on and off in the United States for more than a century now, with no clear resolution in sight: whether to guarantee healthcare for every American.
During the past 100 years, medicine has advanced from a rudimentary craft to a scientific pursuit capable of near miracles. Its cost has increased accordingly: In 2006, U.S. health care spending hit $2.1 trillion, or roughly $7,026 for every man, woman and child in the nation.
As a percentage of the gross domestic product, that is substantially more than any other country. Yet a substantial portion of the American population — 47 million that same year — lacked any health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
As the number of people without insurance increased, so did concern over the problem. But Americans have never neared consensus about what role government in general, and the federal government in particular, should play in ensuring health coverage for all, despite the fact that every other industrialized country has long since established some system of universal insurance.
The stage appears set for yet another major national health insurance debate in 2009, so the Intelligence Squared U.S. series decided to get a head start by choosing it as the topic for its first event of the season. The organization sponsors Oxford-style debates featuring six experts — three on each side — who try to sway an audience that votes before and after the session.
The debate statement was "Universal health coverage should be the federal government's responsibility."
Two of the panelists were Canadian, but they presented sharply divergent views of that country's experience with government-guaranteed health care.
At the start of the event, held at New Yorks Rockefeller University and moderated by John Donvan of ABC News, 49 percent of the audience agreed with the motion that the government is responsible, 24 percent disagreed and 27 percent said they were undecided.
After the debate, the undecideds split almost equally. Fifty-eight percent of the audience agreed with the motion (a gain of 9 percentage points), 34 percent disagreed (a gain of 10 percentage points), and 8 percent remained undecided.
Highlights from the debate: