Vail Daily column: Transform rough patches into smooth places |

Vail Daily column: Transform rough patches into smooth places

Jack Van Ens

Critics grouse about the health care law’s rocky roll-out. They lack a biblical seer’s vision of “uneven ground that shall become level and the rough places a plain” (Isaiah 40:4). Social Security, Medicare and its added supplemental drug entitlement endured uneven starts that straightened out.

Other government-financed programs tottered before they successfully took off, too. During the 18th century, the U.S. government invested in stage coach routes. Later, Uncle Sam lent money to steamboat firms and canal companies which saved them from crushing debt. In the 1830s, government paved the way for railroads to acquire land to lay track.

Thanks to Uncle Sam’s credit, these new modes of transportation gained traction. At first, however, slip-ups occurred in financing or product delivery that government eventually smoothed out.

At the height of the Affordable Care Act website’s malfunctioning, I visited Washington’s National Postal Museum, across from Union Station. An avid U.S. stamp collector since boyhood, I read about debacles that hexed one of the first airplanes to carry mail.

Might the Affordable Care Act follow a similar trajectory, from an online technical boondoggle into a boon for citizens now uninsured?

Issued on May 14, 1918, the first airmail stamp featured a red frame, white lettering and a blue Jenny airplane in its center. Because this stamp was bi-colored, it had to be hand-fed twice through a flat press. A postal worker goofed, feeding through the press a stamped sheet upside-down, to imprint the second color. A collector bought a sheet of these stamps from a Washington post office on the first day issued and discovered each stamp’s design had an inverted plane. The National Postal Museum features this classic error with a one-of-a-kind block of 4 stamps.

Stamp historian George Amick describes this blunder, which ranks as the most prized error in U.S. stamp history. “The Jenny invert is not just another postage stamp,” he writes. “Which is a little like saying Caruso was not just another tenor. Only 100 of the inverts were produced, in a single sheet, by a still-unexplained printer’s error.

“They (stamps with an inverted plane) emerged from (and in an odd way, symbolized) the haste, improvisation and adventure of the world’s first airmail service — that leap of faith by pilots who went up never knowing just where, or how, they would come down” (“The Inverted Jenny: Money, Mystery, Mania”).

Inverted Jenny stamps served as an omen of further mishaps. Although using planes helped deliver letters faster, the initial day of service on May 15 had multiple miscues. President Woodrow Wilson was stood up because, on the inaugural flight to Philadelphia, the plane’s engine wouldn’t start. The president waited while a mechanic inserted a dipstick into the gas tank, which registered almost empty. The make-shift airstrip near the Tidal Basin stored no aviation fuel. Gas was siphoned from other planes near-by.

President Wilson saw the pilot take off in a direction contrary to flight plans. Lost, he landed south of Washington to get his bearings. On descent, he busted the propeller, flipped the plane on its back and shattered some wing struts.

After tweaking the dysfunctional airmail system, it gained a reliable reputation because letters were delivered swiftly and on time.

Might the Affordable Care Act follow a similar trajectory, from an online technical boondoggle into a boon for citizens now uninsured?

Without effective affordable care, 15 percent of U.S. citizens remain uninsured, roughly 50 million people. Twenty-somethings are left without coverage on parents’ health plans. A sick child or elderly parent is denied insurance because of pre-existing conditions. The working poor are especially hard-hit. Families dependent on low-paying jobs earn paychecks that barely cover the past week’s bills. How do they acquire health coverage when high rates dwarf low earnings?

Americans like to solve problems on their own and are wary of big-government solutions. Why do critics, however, dismiss how miserably the old health care system operated when private insurance companies set premiums and hospitals enjoyed non-competitive billing rates? Consumers endured spiraling, out-of-control hikes under the old employer-insurance system. Leaving private carriers to offer health care will service only those who can pay steep premiums.

Should citizens be denied health care? Our nation wrestles with this moral question.

Learn the lesson stamp collectors did at airmail service’s bumpy start. Then it appeared this novel way of mail delivery would be aborted. But airmail service got wings as it grew.

Why does our nation stay grounded by health care’s soaring run-away costs? Stamp your approval on the federal health-care law. Fly with the conviction that, what’s now a bumpy ride, will even out and deliver the goods to citizens.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

Write a column!

What’s on your mind? Share your insights with the rest of the community. Send your submission to

Support Local Journalism