In 1945, President Harry Truman proposed national health insurance for all Americans. Truman believed that by preventing illness, assuring access to needed health services and “protecting our people against the loss caused by sickness,” we could strengthen national health, national defense and productivity. That idea was rejected in favor of private health coverage, most often workplace-sponsored.
Today, nearly 46 million Americans live with no health coverage, including 21 million full-time workers. That number now exceeds the cumulative population of 24 states. One in three Americans (85 million) were without public or private insurance at least part of last year. About 18,000 residents die each year because of these insurance gaps. In terms of loss of life, that’s a World Trade Center attack every two months.
The problem has escalated under the Bush Administration. “Working families were squeezed by runaway health care costs over the past four years,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. “Workers are paying much more in premiums but are receiving less health coverage; wages are being depressed; and millions of people have lost health coverage entirely.” In 35 states, including Indiana, the average premium costs for workers rose at least three times faster than average earnings from 2000 to 2004. This year, the average annual premium for family coverage is $10,880 and expected to reach $14,545 in 2006, more than the gross earnings of a full-time worker at the $5.15 per hour federal minimum wage.
According to SEIU’s Americans for Health Care project, 98 percent of businesses in Indiana are small businesses and 55 percent of them do not offer health insurance; 69 percent of the uninsured have at least one full-time worker at home; and 36 percent of the uninsured in Indiana have incomes above 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, which is the same nationwide.
Wal-Mart, the country’s largest employer, doesn’t provide health insurance to many of its employees, and other big chains follow that example. Instead, they encourage their low-wage workers to apply for public insurance like Medicaid and State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Enrollment in these two programs has jumped by about 27 percent since 2000. Now states are beginning to limit enrollment due to tight budgets.
GM, the country’s largest private purchaser of health coverage, expects to spend $5.6 billion this year on health benefits for workers and retirees, translating to $1,500 for every car or truck produced. GM has other problems, but this expense is partly why the company is cutting jobs, closing plants or locating in other countries. And they are not alone. Toyota recently built another plant in Ontario instead of in the U.S., citing Canada’s less expensive national health care as a main reason. This problem can only get worse as corporations and governments cut jobs and benefits.
We have by far the most expensive health care system in the world, spending $1.4 trillion last year with costs expected to climb to $3.1 trillion by 2012. But, according to economic policy expert Holly Sklar, the U.S. is just number 29 in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) life expectancy ranking. Americans “die earlier and spend more time disabled” than citizens of “most other advanced countries.” We are worse than 36 other countries in infant mortality. We have fewer physicians, nurses and hospital beds per person than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average. We also have fewer MRI and CT scanners and more difficulty making appointments with doctors quickly than people in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. Instead of good care, much of our health care expense actually goes to the massive red tape, profits and executive salaries of private insurance and pharmaceutical companies.
Americans are also more likely to delay or forgo treatment because of cost. One 15-minute doctor appointment could cost $175 (that’s $700 an hour). Kaiser Health Poll reports more people say they are worried about their health care costs than losing their job, not being able to pay their rent or mortgage, losing money in the stock market or being the victim of a terrorist attack.
According to the Jobs with Justice report, “Waste Not Want Not”: “The United States is already spending far more money than is necessary to provide adequate health insurance for all of its people. It is only necessary to redirect some of the money from powerful corporate interests — like the insurance and pharmaceutical industries — to provide the high quality, secure health care that everyone should have.”
The National Coalition on Health Care, an alliance of companies, unions, associations of health care providers, patient and consumer groups, insurers, religious organizations and pension and health funds, issued a report, “Building a Better Health Care System: Specifications for Reform.” They found that single-payer health care would save $1.1 trillion over the first 10 years.
The current health care system obviously hurts our economy yet very little is being done about it. Insurance companies, drug companies and major medical associations lobby powerfully on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures against cost controls and single-payer coverage.
In times of big dramatic crises like Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, Americans come together with great outpouring of emotion and charity to aid our fellow citizens. And we expect our government to address these crises. Must we witness another sweeping, dramatic disaster before we expect them to address our health care crisis?