Opinion

Commentary: Overhaul health care now

While taking in the bipartisan, televised health care summit at the White House or wall-to-wall cable news coverage of the event, don't forget two salient facts reported by prominent health care writer Jonathan Cohn in his illuminating book, "Sick: The Untold Story of America's Health Care Crisis — And The People Who Pay The Price:"

Medicare was created decades ago because the private market was horribly failing seniors most in need of help.

Insuring large numbers of the riskiest — sickest — patients was bad for business.

Medicare's creation also rapidly increased the number of for-profit hospitals who kept Wall Street happy by maximizing profits by benefitting from "Medicare largesse" and skimping on care to the poor.

Those two facts illustrate why government intervention is necessary but also less than ideal, a complex reality proponents and opponents of health care reform are loath to admit.

But the broader reality none of us can afford to deny is this:

Unless something radically changes, health care costs will bankrupt the country.

Only Social Security rivals health care as a fiscal threat.

A larger portion of the middle class will be exposed to outrageously high costs that will lead to more bankruptcies as more employers cancel work-sponsored insurance plans, which has already begun.

"The steady decline of job-based health coverage was the primary reason that the number of Americans without health insurance, nearly 40 million people ... was rising by the early 1990s," Cohn wrote. "... The majority of these newly uninsured were neither destitute nor truly jobless.

Instead, they were people who, as the saying goes, played by the rules of society - finding whatever employment they could, frequently working at several part-time jobs, but with no idea when they'd be able to get medical coverage again."

Tens of thousands of Americans, Harvard University estimates roughly 45,000, will continue unnecessarily dying every year.

Those with even mild health problems will be denied coverage.

The insured will continue to indirectly pay for the uninsured through higher taxes, insurance premiums and hospital fees.

An increasing number of Americans will follow the lead of tens of thousands who have gone to Canada and Mexico to buy prescription drugs - some have even moved to Mexico for more affordable care, or taken "medical tourism" trips to other countries because they can't afford care here.

About a fifth of our gross domestic product will be dedicated to the health industry, up from the 16 percent to 17 percent today, a figure already far higher than every other industrialized country, particularly those with universal health care.

Too many doctors will continue to conduct unnecessary tests out of fear of being sued, because the bias is towards more care even when it isn't effective, or because there aren't enough medical professionals to go around to allow for detailed and coordinated doctor's visits.

And we will continue spending more money than we should to keep a heart beating inside of a body whose life has already escaped - finite resources that could be used to save the saveable - because we are too afraid to admit there are limits to what our technological advances can or should do at the end of life.

We can return to the angry town hall meetings and casually throw around terms such as socialism and death panels and rationing or we can get serious about fixing a growing problem that has the potential to bring us all down if we aren't willing to struggle to find a collective, even if imperfect, solution.

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