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Unhealthy Politics | The Nation

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Unhealthy Politics

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The number-one healthcare issue facing the country is not which prescription drug plan is best for seniors or whether a handful of patients will be able to sue their HMOs. It is the 44 million people, or nearly 20 percent of the population under age 65, who have no health insurance and, for many, no healthcare at all. The myth that emergency rooms provide all the care the uninsured require continues unchallenged. But the emergency room is not the place to get primary care, follow-up care or care for chronic conditions, which most people need. Federal law requires emergency rooms to stabilize patients. After that, they are sent on their way, especially if they have no money to pay for further treatment. When they are given prescriptions, 30 percent of the uninsured don't fill them because of the cost.

Rationing specialty care for the uninsured is common. In Washington, DC, the uninsured wait four months for an MRI and two months for a CT scan. In California, some counties have money to screen women for breast cancer but no money for treatment. During the four to seven years following an initial diagnosis of breast cancer, one national study shows, uninsured women are 49 percent more likely to die than women with insurance. Community clinics that treat the uninsured rarely have specialists on their staffs and resort to begging area physicians to help out--not always with success.

The Bush and Gore solutions do little to help the uninsured and a lot to keep the healthcare system safe for insurance companies, the AMA, employers and the pharmaceutical industry, all of which have shoveled money into their campaigns. Bush proposes an annual refundable tax credit (that is, one that's given even if a person owes no taxes) of up to $1,000 for individuals and $2,000 for families. His campaign literature makes tax credits sound ideal: "If a family earning $30,000 purchases a health insurance plan costing $2,222, the government will contribute $2,000 (90 percent)." Trouble is, most families can't buy insurance for $2,222. The average premium for a family policy is $6,740 and for an individual, $2,542. Gore calls for a credit equal to 25 percent of the premium. Using the average premium as a benchmark, that's about $1,700 for family coverage; a family wanting a policy would still have to cough up more than $5,000.

Tax credits, moreover, leave intact the ability of insurance companies to select good risks and exclude sick people who will cost them money. That, of course, is what the industry wants to protect--and is part of the payoff for its campaign largesse.

Both Bush and Gore would also fiddle with the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to boost coverage. CHIP has brought health insurance to some 2.5 million kids, but 10 million still have none. Bush's solution: Give the states more flexibility in administering the program. But many states have not even spent federal dollars already earmarked for them, and could be tempted into using the money for something other than insurance. Gore's solution: Stretch the eligibility rules to include children whose families have incomes up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or $41,000 for a family of four. But what if a family's income is above 250 percent, say $43,000? Gore's answer: tax credits.

Then there are medical savings accounts, which Bush likes and Gore doesn't. Congress now allows self-employed people and employees in small companies to buy MSAs, which are a combination high-deductible insurance policy and tax-deferred savings account. But at the end of 1999, only 45,000 policies of the 750,000 Congress authorized had been sold. Still, Bush wants to let more people buy them, a move that will spark interest mainly among the healthy, who won't need the savings account to pay for care, and the wealthy, who can assume the costs not covered by the large deductible and who will simply get another tax break.

The major battleground in healthcare, though, is over a prescription drug benefit for Medicare beneficiaries, with pharmaceutical companies replacing HMOs as this year's healthcare villains. Under Bush's scheme, the very poorest seniors would get help paying for the entire cost of a drug benefit. Individuals with incomes greater than $14,600 and couples with incomes up to $19,700 would get a partial subsidy. Bush would pump $48 million into the state pharmaceutical assistance programs to give free drugs to those with the lowest incomes. But more than half the states have no programs, and those that do lace them with restrictions.

Under Gore's plan, Medicare would cover 50 percent of the cost of prescriptions, first up to $2,000 and later up to $5,000, for seniors willing to pay a premium that would start at $25 a month. As with Bush's plan, seniors with very low incomes would get help. Both candidates offer help for those with catastrophic expenses: Gore's benefit would kick in after seniors have spent $4,000 on drugs, Bush's after they've spent $6,000 for all services. Neither, however, includes a way to control pharmaceutical prices. Controls of any sort are anathema to the drug companies.

The fight over whose plan provides the bigger benefit obscures the real fundamental Medicare issue, and that is the future structure of the program itself. Under the guise of "consumer choice," Bush wants to transform Medicare from a social insurance program with a defined benefit available to everyone into a voucher plan under which seniors would be given a fixed amount to buy whatever insurance they could afford. Even if a voucher were sufficient to pay for a policy today, there is no assurance that it would do so in the future. In effect, the Bush proposal could make seniors, rather than government, bear the cost of healthcare inflation. Gore speaks of putting Medicare in a lockbox, which presumably means he wants to maintain it as a social insurance program.

Unresolved in the candidates' discussions is the larger question: Is healthcare a right in America or a commodity available only to those who can pay? On this the public may be way ahead of its leaders. When the Kaiser Family Foundation asked people earlier this year if healthcare, like public education, should be provided equally to everyone, 84 percent said yes. The candidates, however, are listening to the special interests, whose money speaks louder than the people.

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