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‘Miles to go’ before Kennedy’s vision of healthcare reform is realized
September 2009
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author
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On Aug. 25, Massachusetts Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy passed away at the age of 77 after battling a malignant glioma, leaving our nation to celebrate his accomplishments and wonder how his passing will affect Congress' current healthcare reform proposals.
 
Kennedy considered healthcare reform "the cause" of his life, fighting for universal, comprehensive coverage for all Americans at least 15 times throughout his 47 years in the U.S. Senate. Even while undergoing cancer treatments in recent years, he worked closely with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee to pass a healthcare reform bill this year.  
 
Whether consensus on meaningful healthcare reform can be reached in Washington by year's end remains to be seen, and the pharma and biotech markets have been operating under the same uncertainty for months as it is unclear how such a proposal would impact those industries. At the crux of this contentious debate is whether access to affordable, effective healthcare services should be considered a right, not a privilege, for all Americans.  
 
Aside from his own recent experience, Kennedy had a very personal perspective on this noble idea. In 1941, his sister Rosemary Kennedy underwent a lobotomy that mentally incapacitated her for the rest of her life. In 1961, his father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., suffered a major stroke, losing the power of speech and suffering paralysis on his right side. In 1973, Kennedy's son Edward Kennedy Jr., was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma and had his leg amputated. Kennedy was also said to nurse his other son, Patrick J. Kennedy, who suffered from severe asthma attacks as a child. And his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2003.  
 
The Kennedy clan likely had access to the best medical care available, and the senator received health insurance coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program, but his experiences made him keenly aware that America's health care system is marred by deep inequality. Observing in a speech before the Montgomery County Democratic Committee that his son's cancer treatments where covered by his government-sponsored insurance, while other families whose children had the same condition were forced to sell their homes to pay for only a few months of treatments, Kennedy said:
 
"I knew that my child was going to have the best because I had the health insurance of the United States Senate. And I knew that no one, no parent, no parent in that hospital had the kind of coverage that I had. That kind of choice, for any parent in this country is absolutely unacceptable and wrong, my friends."  
 
In the course of our reporting on pharma and biotech business deals, ddn's editorial team often asks companies how they will ultimately measure the success of their acquisition, merger, partnership or collaboration. No matter the size or niche of the company, the answer is always the same: to provide effective new medicines for patients, to address unmet medical needs, to improve the quality of life for patients suffering from "insert disease name here." These are gallant goals, but with millions of Americans without or in danger of losing their health insurance, the almost boiler-plate verbiage begs the question: What good are these efforts if only a limited number of patients have access to them?
 
In his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980, Kennedy often paraphrased Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," at the conclusion of every stump speech to indicate that he had to go on to another political event: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep, and I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep." Kennedy's remarkable journey has come to an end, and as he finally rests in peace, it is now up to American lawmakers to decide the fate of his vision for healthcare reform. Whatever argument you favor, we must all play an active role in the crafting of this legislation if we expect to truly succeed in achieving better patient outcomes. There is far too much at stake to remain silent in this debate.


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