Now that President Bush signed into law a measure addressing the global financial meltdown, the federal treasury will be hundreds of billions of dollars lighter and lots of politicians will be taking credit for solving the crisis on Wall Street.
If only the federal government could be mobilized so quickly to solve the nation’s healthcare crisis. Lost in the hubbub over Wall Street crashing, the Wall Street Journal this week cited steep declines in the amount of prescriptions being filled and the number of physician office visits, the Chicago Tribune reported that workers’ health costs will jump 9 percent next year, and the New York Times noted that 57 million Americans, 43 million of them people with insurance, are struggling with medical bills, the single most common path to bankruptcy. In homes and hospitals across America, our healthcare system is dying a quiet death.
But it’s not so quiet for millions of people like Karen George of Woodbridge, Virginia, whose insurer recently denied her coverage for surgery to treat a disconnected jawbone and insufficient airway that her physician said was life-threatening. Or Barbara Calder of Colorado Springs, who was unable to buy insurance to cover her disabling genetic disease and is moving to her native Belgium to get healthcare. Or Samuel McAdam of Thornton, Pennsylvania, whose insurer denied the oral medication he needed for his stage-four melanoma. Or Carol Black of Cleveland, who has permanent nerve damage in her spine because her insurer repeatedly denied the diagnostic tests she needed. Or Paul Stephens of Princeton, Indiana, who had to file for bankruptcy due to medical debt.
Individuals and families like these write to my organization every day, largely abandoned by a private insurance system that welcomes anyone who is sick or has a prior medical condition as if they were carrying anthrax.
While ordinary Americans endure their pain away from the spotlight of Wall Street or the glare of TV lights, we’re told that sweeping systemic solutions are not politically viable or would interfere with the free market.
Consider how far a $700 billion federal outlay would go in healthcare. It would provide health insurance for 58.3 million families, or all prescription drug costs in the United States for 3.2 years, or all out-of-pocket costs for patients for 2.7 years, or all Medicaid and State Children’s Health Program spending for 3.9 years.
The “free market” think tanks and policy wonks who are cheerleading the taxpayer bailout for banks and stock firms decry any meaningful effort to enact universal healthcare legislation as an assault on the marketplace.
Take John McCain’s health plan. The reason for high healthcare costs, he says, is too much coverage and too much care.
His solution: tax the healthcare benefits for people who get coverage on the job. His plan would impose higher taxes as an incentive to get workers to drop their employer plans, and buy individual plans on the private market. He expects that the higher out-of-pocket costs would discourage individuals from seeking care, as one way to cut health spending. They will cut costs, in the most brutal and inhumane way.
McCain also wants to strip away public protections that consumers have won in many states, such as requirements that insurers cover such “frills” as cancer screening, diabetic supplies and minimum maternity stays.
That’s the meaning of McCain’s widely quoted statement that “Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation.” Those words appeared in the American Academy of Actuaries magazine, a direct promise to the insurance industry to help them remove obstacles to greater profits.
Reduced regulations and oversight failed spectacularly on Wall Street. They’ll make the healthcare crisis worse, as well. If there is an upside to the financial collapse, it is that level-headed people are once again speaking up for regulation and consumer protection are once again viewed as politically viable on all sides of the political spectrum. It’s needed–both in the financial services industry and for healthcare.
An easy starting point is Medicare, the efficient, government-run program that provides healthcare to senior citizens. Expanding and improving it to cover most Americans would end the health insecurity of American families, control costs through means like negotiated fee schedules and global budgeting and put healthcare choices back in the hands of patients and their doctors, not the insurance industry.
We’ve seen this week that our national government can spring into action when the rich and well-connected are in crisis. Congress and the next president must bring the same urgency to protecting the well-being of all Americans endangered by our fractured and failing healthcare system.