Health Care Is a Right, Not a Privilege

Let's be clear. Our health care
system is disintegrating. Today, 46 million people have no health
insurance and even more are underinsured with high deductibles and
co-payments. At a time when 60 million people, including many with
insurance, do not have access to a medical home, more than 18,000
Americans die every year from preventable illnesses because they do not
get to the doctor when they should. This is six times the number who
died at the tragedy of 9/11 - but this occurs every year.

In the midst of this horrendous lack of coverage, the U.S. spends
far more per capita on health care than any other nation - and health
care costs continue to soar. At $2.4 trillion dollars, and 18 percent
of our GDP, the skyrocketing cost of health care in this country is
unsustainable both from a personal and macro-economic perspective.

At the individual level, the average American spends about $7,900 per year on health care. Despite that huge outlay, a recent study found
that medical problems contributed to 62 percent of all bankruptcies in
2007. From a business perspective, General Motors spends more on health
care per automobile than on steel while small business owners are
forced to divert hard-earned profits into health coverage for their
employees - rather than new business investments. And, because of
rising costs, many businesses are cutting back drastically on their
level of health care coverage or are doing away with it entirely.

Further, despite the fact that we spend almost twice as much per
person on health care as any other country, our health care outcomes
lag behind many other nations. We get poor value for what we spend.
According to the World Health Organization the United States ranks 37th
in terms of health system performance and we are far behind many other
countries in terms of such important indices as infant mortality, life
expectancy and preventable deaths.

As the health care debate heats up in Washington, we as a nation
have to answer two very fundamental questions. First, should all
Americans be entitled to health care as a right and not a privilege -
which is the way every other major country treats health care and the
way we respond to such other basic needs as education, police and fire
protection? Second, if we are to provide quality health care to all,
how do we accomplish that in the most cost-effective way possible?

I think the answer to the first question is pretty clear, and one of
the reasons that Barack Obama was elected president. Most Americans do
believe that all of us should have health care coverage, and that
nobody should be left out of the system. The real debate is how we
accomplish that goal in an affordable and
sustainable way. In that regard, I think the evidence is overwhelming
that we must end the private insurance company domination of health
care in our country and move toward a publicly-funded, single-payer
Medicare for All approach.

Our current private health insurance system is the most costly,
wasteful, complicated and bureaucratic in the world. Its function is
not to provide quality health care for all, but to make huge profits
for those who own the companies. With thousands of different health
benefit programs designed to maximize profits, private health insurance
companies spend an incredible (30 percent) of each health care dollar
on administration and billing, exorbitant CEO compensation packages,
advertising, lobbying and campaign contributions. Public programs like
Medicare, Medicaid and the VA are administered for far less.

In recent years, while we have experienced an acute shortage
of primary health care doctors as well as nurses and dentists, we are
paying for a huge increase in health care bureaucrats and bill
collectors. Over the last three decades, the number of administrative
personnel has grown by 25 times the numbers of physicians. Not
surprisingly, while health care costs are soaring, so are the profits
of private health insurance companies. From 2003 to 2007, the combined
profits of the nation's major health insurance companies increased by
170 percent. And, while more and more Americans are losing their jobs
and health insurance, the top executives in the industry are receiving
lavish compensation packages. It's not just William McGuire, the former
head of United Health, who several years ago accumulated stock options
worth an estimated $1.6 billion or Cigna CEO Edward Hanway who made
more than $120 million in the last five years. The reality is that CEO
compensation for the top seven health insurance companies now averages
$14.2 million.

Moving toward a national health insurance program which provides
cost-effective universal, comprehensive and quality health care for all
will not be easy. The powerful special interests - the insurance
companies, drug companies and medical equipment suppliers - will wage
an all-out fight to make sure that we maintain the current system which
enables them to make billions of dollars. In recent years they have
spent hundreds of millions on lobbying, campaign contributions and
advertising and, with unlimited resources, they will continue spending
as much as they need.

But, at the end of the day, as difficult as it may be, the fight for
a national health care program will prevail. Like the civil rights
movement, the struggle for women's rights and other grass-roots
efforts, justice in this country is often delayed - but it will not be
denied. We shall overcome!

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