Health care is at the center of almost every public policy issue – from veterans’ affairs to small business to personal finances (nearly half of all bankruptcies are caused by a medical crisis in the family). Access to affordable health care should come with living in the world’s richest, most advanced nation.
But during George W. Bush’s presidency, the number of Americans living without health insurance has grown from 39.8 million in 2000 to 46.6 million as of the most recent Census Bureau data (2005). That includes 21.5 million people who work full time.
Especially disturbing is that the number of children without health insurance actually grew to 8.3 million in 2005. Children who lack health insurance are more likely to miss school and less likely to get minor ailments treated at all.
Overall, we spend 16% of our GDP on health care – nobody else spends more than 11%. We spend 34% of our health care dollars on administrative costs – nobody else spends more than 19%. Every other industrialized country insures 100% of its people, while we leave tens of millions without coverage. And in the most recent ranking by the World Health Organization, the U.S. ranked 37th, right between Costa Rica and Slovenia.
We need to get to universal health care. A single-payer system clearly would save the most in administrative costs, but there are other ways to achieve universal coverage. Every other industrialized country in the world does have universal health care, but they don’t all use the traditional single-payer model. We should work together to develop an American model that reflects our culture and our history.
While we’re working on that, there are things we can – and should – do immediately. For instance, we should cover every child in America right away. We should treat mental illness and addiction as the health issues they are and pass Paul Wellstone’s bill for mental health parity. And we should look for cures for deadly diseases by harnessing the full potential of stem cell research.
My best friend from back at Westwood Junior High is Dave Griffin. Both he and his wife Margie are pediatricians. Margie works with working poor families at Hennepin County Medical Center.
When I moved back to Minnesota, I had Margie on the show and I asked her, “What happens to families when they make just enough money to not qualify for MinnesotaCare?” She said that it can be devastating.
Margie told me tons of stories, but one just really summed up everything for me. She told me about a 17-year-old girl in a Hmong family. This girl is brilliant; she’s doing college-level work as a junior in high school. She also has lupus, a very serious underlying disease of the liver. The family worked hard and, sure enough, went just over the limit for MinnesotaCare and the girl’s insurance was cut off.
Now, the medicine for lupus is very expensive, and this 17-year-old girl told her parents, you’ve got other kids, don’t buy my medicine. It broke their hearts, but they couldn’t afford it, so they stopped buying her lupus medicine.
Next time Margie sees this girl, it’s six weeks later, she’s back in the hospital, this time in the emergency room suffering from renal failure. And she had to be put on dialysis. And she may have to have dialysis for the rest of her life.
Now, that’s wrong. But it’s not just wrong – it’s stupid! How much is it going to cost our system to give her dialysis throughout her life? And how much is this going to cost her, in terms of her potential and her quality of life?