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Class Notes
Returning to school - and health care
(Published January 9, 2006)


Feliz 2006 Happy New Year. Public school teachers in the District returned to work on Jan. 3 for three days of professional development, planning what students will learn in the remaining six months of school. As I write this, I hope our kids will come back Jan. 9 full of energy and good cheer after a relaxing holiday break. This being the nature of kids, those who complained bitterly about school last year will be anxiously at the door, waiting to get in, missing their friends and missing purposeful activity; missing the often undiscussed joy of school, learning new things and growing as a thinker and as a person. They're also likely to be missing health care.

One of the first things I read in the New Year was an article about Georgetown medical students who posed as uninsured persons, or the parents of uninsured children, needing a check-up and attempted to get a doctor's appointment. What they found is sadly predictable unable to see a doctor, or asked for full payment up front, or delayed for weeks. This mirrors what I see in my kids generally, healthy by grace of god, but missing preventative care and facing financial catastrophe in the event of accident or sickness. On a field trip in December, one of my students lost the lens out of her glasses. Imagine if another lucky student hadn't found it poking out of the snow this kid likely wouldn't have read for weeks while her family scraped together the cash for a full-price replacement.

It's easy to rant against our health care system. D.C. Public Schools teachers have excellent health care insurance, much better than most, yet before the holidays when I came down with a sinus infection, I had to pay $110 in deductibles to visit my designated, in-plan physician and get a simple antibiotic. Not a complaint, just a fact of modern America that all of my readers have probably experienced at one time or another. So, rather than rant, imagine with me something different.

Imagine if health care were a universal benefit, not provided only by certain employers but, instead, available to everyone. Imagine if every man, woman and child in the United States had health insurance. Imagine construction workers able to go to the hospital after an accident without having to come up with $200 cash up-front. Imagine students with life-threatening conditions like diabetes getting treatment instead of passing out in class, as happened to a student of mine. Imagine wages at U.S. companies going up by more than the increase in the employee health care contribution. Imagine the millions of our fellow Americans with chronic conditions getting treatment instead of going without.

This is the America we should be creating. The only way we're going to get it is if we take action in the political realm. Our political leadership isn't missing in action on health care they're actively moving in the wrong direction. Congress has purposefully prevented programs like Medicare from negotiating discounted rates for prescriptions, and states must sue the Food and Drug Administration to try and import low-cost drugs. The Hillary Clinton-led health care reform died long ago, but the need that spurred the Clintons to act hasn't gone away. Right now, our companies and our government agencies -- think General Motors, Delta Air Lines, New York Transit workers and countless small businesses -- face massive costs due to health care premiums.

Over 45 million people, out of less than 300 million total in the United States, are uninsured. Of those 45 million, 27 million are working, and 8 million are children. This doesn't include the under-insured, or those who have insurance with deductibles so high as to be almost worthless. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2004 Census)

It makes no sense that employers have become the primary source for health care for adults. They're not in the health business, nor can they afford to be and remain competitive. The ridiculousness of our current health care system is illustrated by dental plans in California that encourage patients to use dentists in Mexico, and by automobile factories in Ontario instead of Detroit, in part because Canada picks up the health care.

Similarly, it makes no sense that schools are often the primary health care for students. At my school, our former nurse took a job out of state and for a period of several weeks, there was no nurse on-site. Kids just did without. We're lucky; once again we have a full-time nurse, but for many schools, in DCPS and across the country, there is no nurse, or, a nurse rotates to the school a couple times per week. The teacher's role is clear: remind kids not to get sick on Tuesdays. Schools now provide nutrition, counseling, health care, day care and a host of other community services. Reforming our national health care approach will liberate resources from schools, and let us devote more of our energies to instruction.

Our current health care system has consequences for my kids, and, for our country. After all, what is the purpose of a public education system? To produce the citizens, and therefore the society, we want for the future. I want a safe, just and productive country. Stand up for universal health care now, so that 2007 can be even happier and healthier.


Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program ( Please send stories, comments or questions to

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator