With over 45 million people without any health care coverage, according to Census Bureau surveys, Marilyn Clement, national coordinator of Healthcare Now!, sees no other alternative but to campaign tirelessly for universal health care. Clement recently talked with me by telephone to discuss the need for a universal single-payer health care plan and the work of the coalition she coordinates to achieve one.
According to the results of a survey published in 2004 by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, as many as 82 million people under the age of 65 spent some part of 2003 without coverage. This figure includes over 8 million children and 27 million workers, according to data compiled by the National Health Care Coalition. Other startling statistics include the fact that one-third of businesses, mostly small businesses, do not or cannot afford to provide coverage for their employees.
In February of this year, the journal Health Affairs published a study that showed that half of US bankruptcies, affecting 2 million people annually, were caused by illness or medical bills. Clement adds that as many as 100 million people who do have some insurance at some point during any given year still find that they aren’t fully covered. "When they need medical treatment, they find they’re not totally covered because of ‘pre-existing conditions,’ or this particular treatment is not covered, or they have a 20 percent deductible, or their insurance policy has an upper limit," she points out.
A 2003 study by the Institute of Medicine found that insured households paid an average of $26,957 in medical bills after the diagnosis of a serious new health condition. Uninsured households paid $42,166. While insurance helps reduce costs on the average, as the results of this study indicate, patients and their families who face long-term or serious health conditions have to find tens of thousands of dollars to cover all costs.
Additionally, veterans, who have been promised access to Veterans’ Administration programs, have found out recently that cuts to the VA budget ordered by the Republican-controlled Congress and President Bush have forced them to pay more and more for treatments, drugs, and other medical expenses.
Tina McCulloch, whose husband is a Vietnam-era veteran with diabetes, a part-time job and no employer-based health care, complains that when they turned to the VA for assistance, they found new hurdles to jump through for minimal help. Tina’s husband was told that he earned too much to receive full health benefits. His income is around $1,550 per month.
Tina’s husband does get prescription drug coverage –” a boon for a diabetes patient –” but is required to see a VA doctor to qualify. Recent Bush/Republican budget cuts more than tripled the price of his prescription co-pay, and he drives 70 miles one way and pays $50 per visit to see a VA doctor.
McCulloch denounced the cuts and the difficult rules, saying, "I would like for Bush to have to drive 70 miles one way for him to receive health care." McCulloch angrily added, "Bush is treating veterans like they don’t deserve anything, much less substandard health care, when many of the health problems veterans suffer are from service."
Insurance companies also often refuse coverage for expensive life-saving treatments such as re-operation after leaking or displaced silicone breast implants threaten a woman’s health.
The direct impact on the health or financial well-being of health care consumers and their families is not the only severe problem with the lack of a universal system of health care delivery in the US, Clement points out. A massive anarchistic and costly system of corporate bureaucracy drives most of the way things are currently done.
According to the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP, an organizational partner of the Healthcare Now! coalition), on average, private insurers take 13 percent of all premium dollars for profit or overhead. Large HMOs, profits and overhead amount to about 30 percent of premiums. In fact, HMOs have become notorious for sacrificing coverage to increase profits. By contrast, says PNHP, "overhead consumes less than 2 percent of funds in the fee-for-service Medicare program, and less than 1 percent in Canada’s program."
PNHP is an organization of doctors who support reforming the health care problem in the US by implementing a single-payer universal health care system. According to the organization’s website, PNHP has over 10,000 members, and well over 12,000 doctors have endorsed PNHP’s petition for implementing a universal single-payer system. As Clement points out, "A lot of the doctors have something they hate more than government and that’s the corporations, particularly the insurance companies, but the pharmaceutical companies and the HMOs, too."
Clement’s coalition supports a single-payer plan that would expand Medicare to cover everyone. Medicare under this plan would be the single-payer, rather than the currently failed mess of cobbled together insurance, consumer, and government payers. This plan has been introduced to Congress by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) as the US National Health Insurance Act (H.R. 676).
"We’re talking about a system where Medicare pays the bills," Clement describes. "We all pay into it, like we’ve all been paying into it all along, but we pay much less than we’ve been paying under the current system. We pay for it as a tax –” businesses would pay half, employees would pay for half of it. It would be handled by Medicare at 2TO 3 percent management costs. Doctors would still be independent. Hospitals could be public or private." In a word, the system proposed by Conyers would be publicly funded and privately delivered.
She adds, "It’s an American-style health care system –” if you want to use that term. It just happens that we’re talking about a different way of paying for it."
Support for the Healthcare Now! coalition’s goal of passing the Conyers Bill is growing. According to Clement, the coalition and its supporters have organized public events in 90 cities over the next few months. Advocates for universal health care, state and federal politicians, labor union activists and officials, faith community leaders, seniors, youth, health care consumers and many other people will be speaking in town hall forums at labor union halls, churches, libraries, community theaters and other venues about what single-payer means, why it is more cost-effective, how it would be paid for, and why it is desperately needed. These meetings are planned for cities from Georgia to Indiana, California to New York.
At least two international unions are sponsors of the coalition, including the United Steel Workers and the United Mine Workers with dozens of locals and labor-related organizations endorsing as well. Other international unions such as the United Auto Workers, the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees International Union have endorsed the concept of a single-payer system.
The coalition’s next meeting will be held just outside of Detroit, Michigan in Dearborn on October 17th from 5:30pm to 8pm at the UAW Local 600 union hall at 10550 Dix at Wyoming, Dearborn 48120. All of the public is welcome.