Archive for June, 2009

Healthcare Rx – Arrest the Doctors

June 22, 2009

The following article appears in the June issue of the Takoma/Silver Spring Voice. The healthcare “debate,” such as it is, is reaching a climax in Congress – votes are expected this summer. There is no better time than now to call your Rep and Senators at 202-224-3121 and demand the same health care system available to people in almost every other county in the industrialized world, the same health care members of Congress get. Tell them you want single payer now!

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Dr. Pat Salomon, a Montgomery County resident and pediatrician with 35 years experience delivering services to children in medical clinics, went to the Capitol on May 12th to speak in front of the Senate Finance Committee, advocating for a single-payer health care system. For her trouble, she was arrested and shackled to the wall of a D.C. jail, along with seven colleagues who also spoke out.

As Congress prepares to vote on healthcare legislation this summer, how on earth did we get to a point where Democratic Senators – yes, Democrats – are having doctors arrested and hauled out of hearings?

Our health care system is in crisis. Medical costs are sky-high and rising 6% a year.  More than 45 million Americans have no health insurance at all. And with insurers loading the rest of us up with deductibles and co-pays while simultaneously trying to limit coverage every way they can, most people who have health insurance don’t realize how inadequate it is until they become seriously ill or injured – and then, God help them. Medical expenses are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S.  – accounting for more than half of them – and 70% of those losing their shirts actually had health insurance when they got sick.

In the United States we pay twice as much per capita for health care as any other industrialized country,  yet we come in near the bottom of the list on everything from  infant mortality and immunization rates to life expectancy and preventable deaths. How can this be?

The problem is the middlemen who come between us and our doctors – the private insurance companies. One third of every dollar we spend on health care goes to administration and overhead, including CEO salaries (among the highest on the Fortune 500 list), and endless paperwork, much of which is used to deny needed care. The problem is that we have put the public health in the hands of private insurers, who have every financial incentive to limit and deny coverage because that is how they increase their profit. The less care they have to pay for, the more profit they make.

The answer to this problem is a national health care plan, also called single payer.  Our healthcare would still be privately delivered by doctors, nurses and hospitals of our choice, but instead of multiple private insurers trying to squeeze every last dime out of us, there would be one public insurer – the government – which has no interest in making a profit off our illness or health. We would pay for our healthcare in taxes, and the government would then pay the medical bills.

This is the eminently sensible system used in Canada and all those other industrialized countries that surpass us in health care, and for half the price. It is the principle behind Medicare, which, despite the fact that it’s subsidizing private insurers by taking the most medically needy citizens off their hands, still far outperforms its for-profit counterparts. (Only  3% of every Medicare dollar goes to administration and overhead, a mere 1/10 the amount consumed by private insurers.)

This answer to our healthcare crisis is so clear that in recent polls 59% of doctors and 65% of regular Americans say some form of national single payer health program is their preference.

And yet, incredibly enough, the single payer plan is not part of the healthcare reform “debate” in Congress.  Dr. Salomon went to the Senate Finance Committee because its chair, Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, had seats at his hearing for the insurance companies, the drug companies, even the conservative Heritage Foundation, but not a single seat for anyone advocating single payer  – despite having received thousands of such requests.

What about President Obama? A video clip dug up by veteran journalist and commentator Bill Moyers shows  the young Illinois state senator telling an AFL-CIO meeting in 2003 that he was “a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program.” But, he added “… you know we might not get there immediately because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate and we have to take back the House.”

So here we are six years later, with Barack Obama as President, a strong Democratic majority in the House, and a soon-to-be filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate.  And where is single-payer for the new administration? Off the table. Not even being discussed. If it wasn’t for a threatened White House protest by the Physicians for a National Health Program (www.pnhp.org) , the President would have barred single-payer advocates from his own health care conference earlier this year. (Two were reluctantly admitted, but not allowed to speak.)

What happened to Barack Obama in those six years? Well, he became a U.S. Senator and then President. And he started accepting contributions from the health insurance industry and drug makers.  Not surprisingly, Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus is the third highest recipient of insurance company money in Congress.

The health insurance and pharmaceutical industries give millions of dollars in contributions to members of Congress, Democrat and Republican alike, and spend millions on lobbying – $134 million in the first quarter of 2009 alone – to keep a system which is quite lucrative for them just the way it is.  And so far,  the majority of members of Congress, Democrat and Republican alike, are more than willing to appease these profiteers  by refusing to even discuss single payer. They are so under the influence of insurance company money they can’t even hold an intellectually honest debate on healthcare, one that would include the proven and effective system favored by most Americans.

Of our area Congresspeople, only Rep. Donna Edwards has co-sponsored H.R. 676, the single payer healthcare bill in the House. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the chief fundraiser for the House Democratic majority, refuses to do so. And neither of our Senators, Mikulski or Cardin, have co-sponsored the companion bill in the Senate, S. 703.

It’s really quite simple. Basic healthcare is a human right – not a commodity to be provided or denied based on personal income or a corporation’s desired profit margin. If you agree, take some inspiration from my friend Pat Salomon, contact your members of Congress at 202-224-3121, and demand that single-payer be included in the health care debate.