This essay was one of five finalists in The Nation‘s Third Annual Student Writing Contest.

When my grandpa entered the hospital two weeks before my birthday, it was supposed to be for a simple operation. It was so minor that my parents almost forgot to tell me. The procedure went off without a hitch, and my dad visited him the next day, telling me later that Grandpa was his normal, albeit incoherent, grouchy self. He spent his time in bed bemoaning the Yankee pitching staff to the family. Two days later, he suddenly fell into critical condition; he had been retaining fluid in his stomach, but since there were only two nurses tasked to the entire hospital floor, it had gone unnoticed. My grandpa had gotten up to go to the bathroom and ended up not seeing the next morning.

I don’t blame the doctors and nurses who were working that night. The hospital was understaffed, and the staff could not help paying my grandpa little attention. I’m angry at the underfunding of hospitals and at insurance companies that reap profits by refusing to provide the money people need and deserve for care. Really, though, I’m angry that the vast majority of Americans have failed to comprehend the problems in our healthcare system; with costs on the rise and insurance companies denying appropriate treatments at every turn, it’s time Americans became educated about the system that is perpetually denying our interests in favor of its own. Insurance companies are more worried about losing money than taking care of the sick. Healthcare needs to be about caring for the sick rather than profiteering, and that will never be the case when privatized interests control it.

The next president needs to understand that behind every decision he will make is a very real choice that will have profound effects on people across the country. Recently the idea of a gas tax holiday came up, and although every economist on record has stated that such a holiday would ultimately have little or no effect on the price of gas, the gas tax “holiday” gained the support of two leading presidential candidates. Political decision-making oriented toward popularity rather than the benefit of the American people must stop. It is that kind of decision-making that left my grandfather in the hospital to die, and it is that kind of decision-making that will lead to many more tragedies.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, above all else, that the people have the right to life. It is the duty of the US government to uphold that right as though it were sacred. Yet our healthcare system is arguably the worst among the advanced nations of the world even though we spend more than any other country. England spends 60 percent less per person than the United States does on healthcare, yet every citizen of England is insured and has access to good, quality healthcare that is paid for by the government. Every other wealthy nation in the world provides universal healthcare, but the United States could do better than all of them. Our government needs to stop wasting money, pass legislation to grant every American the right to quality healthcare and stop the destruction of public hospitals that fall victim to the competition privatized medicine creates. Care for the sick is the responsibility of the government and needs to be brought under government control. Hospitals need better funding and better staff-to-patient ratios. Private insurance companies should exist only for those who desire elective coverage beyond what the government provides.

As FDR once said, “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to the point where it becomes stronger than the state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.” Nothing could be more relevant to the state of our healthcare system today. We live in a time when corporate power determines who lives and who dies, and that’s a disgrace to our founding fathers. But more important, it’s a disgrace to us. We no longer stand up, we no longer shout, we just accept and acquiesce until we have lost our rights, our voice, our agency and our country.

Recently, unbeknownst to my family, I visited my grandpa’s grave. I don’t even know why; somehow my car steered me to the graveyard. I stood in front of his cubbyhole grave and thought about legacy. I felt I owed something to my grandpa; he had given me so much love, and I had not even visited him in the hospital. I thought about the life I was leading and how I could honor him. This is my start.