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Richards advocates health care

Megan O'Neil | Friday, September 24, 2004

Speaking with the same wit and energy that characterized her political career, former Texas governor Ann Richards called for major expansionary changes in the national health care system Thursday night in the keynote address of the “Justice for All Ages” conference.

“I think we have to begin to work for universal coverage from the youngest among us to the oldest,” Richards said.

According to Richards, 45 million Americans currently live with no health care, and the issue ranks in importance behind only terrorism and the economy on political agendas during this year’s campaign season.

Despite this, she said, the topic is not being sufficiently addressed by candidates and the media.

“The crisis in health care is not new and it is not restricted to the elderly and the young,” Richards said. “It is everyone’s problem.”

A mother of four, Richards got her start in the public life as a volunteer for local political campaigns in Austin, Tex. In 1982 she was recruited by the Democratic Party and was elected state treasurer – the first time a woman elected to a statewide office in 50 years.

With her popularity already cemented at home, Richards arrived on the national political scene in 1988 at the Democratic National Convention, where she delivered the keynote speech. Riding on that momentum, Richards was elected governor in 1990 and served one term.

She recently published a book titled “I’m Not Slowing Down – Winning My Battle with Osteoporosis.”

Richards, who was frequently interrupted by cheering and applause from the audience, admitted that the health care issue is a very complex and expensive one. Answering to the theme of the conference however, she said it is possible to provide health care for everyone in a world where the median age is steadily rising.

“We can do it with careful planning, political will and money,” Richards said. “But the devil is in the details.”

Widespread dissatisfaction has not been enough to overcome the fear of a cumbersome and impersonal government replacement to the existing HMO system, she said.

“I am here to tell you that is what we are doing without any help from the government what so ever,” Richards said.

The former governor was particularly critical of pharmaceutical companies that have made it difficult for many Americans to afford the drugs they need.

Calling it “absurd,” Richards described how residents of New Hampshire pay as much as 200 percent more for their prescription drugs than their neighbors in Canada. Americans, she said, should be permitted to purchase their medication anywhere that is safe.

Richardson also expressed frustration about the current system’s focus on treatment rather than preventive care. Costs force people to “make do” without doctors’ visits, and only when a serious problem arises do they seek care.

The final bill ends up being much larger than it would have for intervention care, she said.

Americans’ bad health is not only the fault of a weak health care system however. Richards emphasized that each individual must care and be an advocate for their own well-being.

“I believe your health is your responsibility,” Richards said.

Improving personal care and extending independence as long as possible, she argued, is especially crucial for senior citizens. Richards gave details of her own efforts to become a healthy 71-year-old woman. Fat and sugar was largely eliminated from her diet, and she exercises regularly.

She also hailed non-western treatment such as acupuncture and message as wonderful options for maintaining good health.

The government can help the elderly remain active by providing adequate public transportation and even walkways, Richards said. Calling her generation a “transitional group,” she said elders today are more educated than any generation before it and therefore need to be engaged with lecture series and public events.

“We have got to take responsibility for our health and take responsibility for talking straight to our government,” Richards said.

Americans have been let down by government health care not only in seeking a healthy life, said the former governor, but also is seeking a respectful death.

Richards described her dismay that patients today are often sustained for weeks by machines only to delay the inevitable. People should be allowed to die and be relieved of their suffering, Richards said.

“The point of it all is not to live longer but to live well while we are here,” Richards said.

The conference will continue today with several panel discussions focusing on the various issues within universal health care.