Remember When the Government Gave ‘Free Health Care’ to Poor Black Citizens in Alabama?

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As we prepare for yet another legislative revolution in American health care, let’s look back at some of the illustrious work done by US health officials in our past, just to make sure we can all be on the same page.

If we’re going to have a serious discussion about whether health care is a basic human right that should be provided to all citizens equally and at whatever cost, we have to be honest about the organizations responsible for overseeing and administering health and medical services in the US.

This is a story about 40-year experiment conducted in Macon County, Alabama started in 1932. That year The US Public Health Service (now the “US Department of Health and Human Services”) worked in conjunction with Tuskegee University to enroll 600 impoverished sharecroppers in a free health care program to treat them for “bad blood”, a term locals used to describe a range of diseases like syphilis, anemia, and fatigue.

In truth, the purpose of the study was to observe the natural progression of syphilis in rural African American men if it was left untreated. Of the chosen study participants, 399 were found to have previously contracted syphilis; 201 did not. The infected men were never informed that they had the disease and were never given any treatment.

The ever-generous federal government provided these men free medical care, meals, and free burial insurance for their participation in the study (not entirely unlike American slaves of the previous century).

The study was conducted even after funding was lost – without ever informing the men of their conditions or providing treatment. They even prevented their victims from accessing the syphilis treatment programs that were available to other residents in the area.

The program continued until a leak to the press in 1972 resulted in enough public outrage that the program was officially halted. This was after it had already claimed the lives of many men, infected 40 of their wives, and 19 children who were born with congenital syphilis.

The Tuskegee Experiment, as the study came to be known, was just one of many disturbing programs directed under the tutelage of what we now know as the US Department of Health and Human Services. We should also recognize that this is the department responsible for overseeing its many operating divisions, like the CDC, FDA and NIH – directed, of course, by their corporate overlords in the private sector.

So, while free health care for all sounds like a glorious idea, we would have to be very gullible or naïve to think that these government agencies that have never prioritized the common good of American citizens would suddenly shake off their shackles of corruption and internal cronyism and start working for our best interests.

It’s a nice dream, but it feels like we’re trying to jam the lid down on Pandora’s Box and act like it was never opened.

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