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Preëxisting Condition

American legislators have been trying – and failing – to achieve universal health coverage for more than a century now.

"At present the United States has the unenviable distinction of being the only great industrial nation without compulsory health insurance,” the Yale economist Irving Fisher said in a speech in December. December of 1916, that is. More than nine decades ago, Fisher thought that universal health coverage was just around the corner. “Within another six months, it will be a burning question,” he predicted. Oh, well. What’s a century, give or take?

Health care has been on the docket longer than most Americans can expect to live, with or without it. “Let’s take a quick trip back in time,” Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said on the Senate floor this past July, whereupon he proceeded to page through back issues of the Times, quoting headlines about the astronomical cost of health care in 1992, 1988, and 1979, all the way to 1955 (the year he was born), to read this timeless line: “As it does each year without fail, the government declared again this week that it is time to do something about the rising cost of medical care.” Health-care reform isn’t premature, Whitehouse insisted. It’s “55 years late.” (Or ninety-three. But who’s counting?) Last month, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat, echoed the point that it was funny to call health-care reform “rushed”: “America has been working on providing access to health care for all Americans since the nineteen-thirties, the nineteen-forties, the nineteen-fifties, the nineteen-sixties, nineteen-seventies, nineteen-eighties, and the nineteen-nineties.”