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Red Cross lessons for Obamacare disputes

As arguments revive over Obamacare (Affordable Care Act), the 150th anniversary of the International Committee of the Red Cross is a time to learn from a group that first championed nonpartisan, neutral respect for a universal right to health.

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    President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso leave after a news conference upon their meeting at the ICRC headquarters in Geneva Oct. 28.
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A botched health-care website. Shock over cancellations of insurance. A government shutdown over Obamacare.

With the debate over the Affordable Care Act heating up again, it may be time to step back and take note of a milestone for an organization whose core mission is be nonpartisan and neutral about ensuring the freedom of each person from suffering.

Last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross quietly marked the 150th anniversary of its official founding. Along with its affiliated national Red Cross and Red Crescent groups, the Geneva-based ICRC and its 12,000 employees have become respected flag-bearers for the universal right to health.

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That concept was a novelty back in 1863 when Henry Durant, the group’s founder, proposed it. He was shocked after seeing wounded soldiers left unattended on a battlefield in Europe. He asserted a humanitarian principle about health that would supersede all claims of ideology, nationality, or creed.

He and others then worked with the major powers to ensure access for Red Cross workers in war zones and, eventually, to natural disasters and prisons, so they could tend the needy or neglected. With the focus of their compassion strictly on the individual, the Red Cross become easily accepted by combatants for its evenhanded work.

After more than a century, the Red Cross still provides a sturdy model for other humanitarian aid groups in how to remain independent, impartial, and neutral. A right to health without discrimination has since become widely accepted by almost every government and even a few terrorist groups involved in conflict. Since 1901, Durant and the Red Cross have received four Nobel Peace Prizes between them, more than any other recipient.

What helps make the Red Cross a model for Washington’s contentious debate is its constant effort to earn the trust of opposing parties and then persuading them that they have a mutual interest in allowing those in need of health care to be treated.

Each struggle is different and rarely easy. Political differences in a conflict area or physical dangers often hinder Red Cross workers. They are on guard against being misused beyond their mission. They must rely on confidential dialogue to gain access and must keep a promise not to judge or expose.

“The task is first and foremost to recognize the humanity in each one of us, as remote and different as we may be, and most importantly to refuse to remain a spectator when this humanity is denied or violated,” writes Vincent Bernard, an ICRC editor. Such sentiment is now the basis for much of the Geneva Conventions.

With more wars now within a state rather than between states, and with more violent groups unattached to a government, the Red Cross’s work has become more difficult. “Respect for health services – and for the very principle of humanitarian access to conflict victims – is being trampled underfoot every day,” says ICRC official Francois Bellon.

The purity of the Red Cross vision, however, has helped protect most of its workers from harm while they bring relief to millions of sufferers. The organization is not without controversy over some of its history, methods, and stands. It is often criticized for not being involved in issues of security, development, human rights, or criminal liability.

“Our strength is our conviction. It is being on the ground, near the conflicts, knowing the different actors, being aware of the population’s suffering and responding to the population’s needs,” says its president, Peter Maurer.

The Red Cross anniversary is an opportunity for all sides in the Obamacare debate to ask if they can agree that health is a nonpartisan right for each individual. From that, disputes over how to realize health – by whom, at what cost, and the means – are more easily resolved.

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