Gene Farley and I shared a deep affection for Tommy Douglas, the Baptist preacher-turned-statesman who as the leader of Saskatchewan’s Cooperative Commonwealth Federation established the framework for what would become Canada’s single-payer national health care system.
Douglas, who is often recalled as "the Greatest Canadian," had a congenial style that belied his determination to address social and economic injustices he knew to be immoral. “The inescapable fact,” he argued, “is that when we build a society based on greed, selfishness, and ruthless competition, the fruits we can expect to reap are economic insecurity at home and international discord abroad.”
Paraphrasing Tennyson, Douglas roused Canadians with a promise: “Courage, my friends; 'tis not too late to build a better world.” That line always came to mind when I was with Gene, who died Friday at 86.
Gene was an internationally renowned physician, an originator of family practice residency programs and innovative public-health initiatives who finished a distinguished academic career as chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin.
Yet, his great passion was as a “build a better world” campaigner. The man who proudly recalled joining the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 was still marching for those same causes in 2013.
With his beloved wife, Dr. Linda Farley, Gene devoted two decades of “retirement” to advancing a broad justice vision that — after Linda’s death in 2009 — could be seen in the remarkable ecological, agricultural and community-building work of the Linda & Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability.
Because of their professional background, Gene and Linda focused particularly on advancing the cause of universal health care. With their longtime friend Dr. Quentin Young, they were early and enthusiastic leaders of the "Physicians for a National Health Program" movement, which for decades has encouraged US leaders to develop “an expanded and improved version of Medicare (to) cover every American for all necessary medical care.”
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The man who refused offers of prestigious international positions because he felt a duty to carry on the battle to reform the US health-care system knew understood the challenge of seeking that reform at a time “when society is going toward selfish extremes…when (governments) pay anything to build up the military but don't want to give to the social good.” Still, he remained "fantastically optimistic." And that optimism was often rewarded—especially with the 2012 election of his friend and ally Tammy Baldwin as the junior senator from Wisconsin.
Though Farley warned that the Affordable Care Act, with its deference to insurance companies, was more complicated and costly than need be, he hoped that the passage of the act would serve as an important step on the road to a creating a single-payer system in the United States. As we traveled in eastern Canada together last month — on a Nation Cruise where Gene delighted in comparing notes with his dear friends Dr. Michael Klein and Bonnie Sherr Klein — we spoke a good deal about the difficulty of implementing what has come to be known as “Obamacare.”
Yet, Gene, “fantastically optimistic” as ever, recalled that Canada went through decades of bitter wrangling before finally establishing a universal health care system that delivers longer life expectancy more efficiently and at a lower cost than the American system. “We have to be patient, but we have to be determined,” he said, explaining that the establishment of the principle of “health care as a right” is not just a medical mission, not even an economic or social responsibility.
It is, Gene said, “about morality.”
Canada came to recognize that morality, embracing the vision of Tommy Douglas.
And it is right and necessary to expect that America will come to recognize that morality, embracing the vision of Gene Farley.