The case for Obamacare, courtesy of the Three Stooges

Sometimes, your TV delivers a surprise. Click it on, and the last channel you’d been watching comes to life again with something you would never have watched otherwise.

Like the Three Stooges.

What I saw on the TV screen didn’t look like a Three Stooges movie. It looked like a scene from a 1930s film, a poor young woman and her little brother poking around in a city dump, looking for $62 they had stashed away.

I don't like the Three Stooges, but by the time they showed up in the scene in the 1937 short called “Cash and Carry,” I couldn’t change the channel.

The boy, little Jimmy, was crippled, and that $62 was the money he and his sister had saved toward the $500 it would cost to fix his bum leg. $500 is about $8,000 in current-day currency, a sum as impossibly huge for your 1937 average dump dwellers then as it is now. “$500,” says Curly. “That’s almost a million!"

The Stooges -- who had taken the $62 in the first place, thinking it was found money -- were remorseful. They promised to help. They told Jimmy and his sister that if they put that $62 in the bank, it would accumulate interest and grow to $500.

And indeed it would -- in 140 years, the bank teller told them.

In short, in this short, the Stooges get swindled out of the $62, follow a fake treasure map to get money for little Jimmy’s operation and wind up drilling into the U.S. Treasury and getting arrested.

What’s this got to do with the healthcare overhaul?

(Put out of your mind that other Stooges short, where they find themselves as doctors in a hospital. That kind of care, no one needs.)

It's because the Stooges get hauled into the Oval Office, where FDR considers the circumstances and lets the Stooges off the hook. Most important, he tells little Jimmy, “I shall arrange personally for your operation.”

It’s a sweet little ending, if you don’t consider the thousands of other Jimmys in the United States, then and now, who also need an operation, or a prescription, or an asthma inhaler, and can’t afford it.

Happenstance and serendipity -- a Kickstarter fund, a lottery ticket, a kindly church -- are no way to manage a national healthcare system.

Wolf Blitzer was stunned during a GOP presidential primary debate a couple of years ago when he asked candidate Ron Paul, who is also a doctor, whether someone who decides not to buy health insurance and then falls ill should be allowed to die. Before Paul could answer, some in the audience applauded and hollered “Yeah!”

The “Jimmy” case then was Ron Paul’s late campaign manager, Kent Snyder. He didn’t have the luxury of deciding not to buy healthcare. He had a preexisting condition, and the insurance that was for sale for his circumstance, he couldn’t afford.

He fell ill with complications of pneumonia in 2008 and died at age 49. The last-gasp treatment he did get cost $400,000. The hospital sent his mother the bill. Supporters raised maybe a tenth of that.

“That’s what freedom is about,” Paul had answered Blitzer. “Taking your own risks.”

Taking a risk involves making a choice. People don’t choose to have preexisting conditions. Parents don’t choose to leave their children without a safety net such as health insurance.

Beginning in a couple of weeks, people can choose something: They can choose to buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act -- Obamacare, to put another president’s name on it.

Obamacare is a long way from charity. It’s a commercial transaction. And it’s in society’s enlightened self-interest that people be as healthy as they can for as long as they can, that we all spend a little on prevention to save all of us the massive cost of heroic medical intervention. It means those who once couldn’t afford basic doctor checkups now can keep little health problems from turning into enormously complex and expensive ones.

“Productive member of society” -- that’s the phrase I’m looking for.

Kids as poor as little Jimmy are looked after, and other kids can’t be cut out of insurance policies because of preexisting conditions. Literary pathologists think Tiny Tim, the crippled boy of “A Christmas Carol,” could have suffered from a couple of conditions, either of which was treatable in Dickens’ day. If the Cratchits had been able to afford it, Tim would have been not a sickly child heading for an early grave but “a productive member of society,” like little Jimmy of the city dump.

More than 75 years ago, the Stooges made a short film that made the case for Obacamare. It ain’t perfect, but it’s way better than a poke in the eye.


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