The moral case for health care reform
The Senate has begun debate on health care reform about three weeks after the House of Representatives narrowly passed its own version. We can expect that, sometime between now and the January State of the Union address, President Barack Obama will have signed a bill.
Though political and legislative wrangling over the next few weeks will decide whether or not this prediction pans out, it looks now as if the final product will include a relatively hamstrung version of the public option, an individual purchasing mandate and subsidy levels that allow about 95 percent of Americans to attain health insurance.
It is an exciting time for progressives who have been fighting the battle for universal coverage for literally 100 years. But, as the debate shifts to an obsessive focus on the cost and consequence to the private insurance market, it will be important for the president and Democrats to remember why they have been fighting this battle in the first place.
Since we will never truly get away from a debate on the cost of extending the ability to attain health insurance to a near-universal number of Americans, let us get to the core of that question right away: The latest analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said that the plan under consideration in the Senate will cost $849 billion over 10 years. But, because of various cost control measures, taxes and reductions in federal obligations to the Medicare Advantage program, it will reduce the government’s deficit by $127 billion over that same period. The CBO also said that the Senate bill will reduce health insurance premiums over the long term for the vast majority of Americans.
But the one number that often gets left out of news reports and political commentary about health insurance reform is that the CBO has also said that the Senate bill will extend coverage to 94 percent of Americans by 2019. That means that nearly 31 million citizens of our country including 13 million children, will be offered the ability to see a doctor when they are sick and swiftly return to powering the next generation of American exceptionalism.
By 2019, we will have been able to treat millions for illnesses that could have handicapped lives, like autism and childhood obesity or even more simple things like severe colds and the flu that keep people out of school and out of work.
My family has dealt with periods of time where we were unable to afford health insurance. As luck would have it, that time also coincided with an illness I suffered through. In 2007, I developed a deviated septum caused by a sinus infection so severe that it could only be rectified through surgery.
The procedure would cost about $5,000. Without insurance to cover the cost and a family just struggling to get by without sudden medical costs to think about, I could not get the surgery. I had to seriously consider leaving the University of Massachusetts so that the illness would not also lead to failing my classes.
I am not the only person at this university that has had to weigh a similar decision during their attendance. Do we, as a society, want to perpetuate a system where our youth must put their futures on hold because they cannot afford simple medical procedures?
I was recently in New York City, where I spoke to a husband and wife that were in a different, but ultimately all-too-common, situation (they were asked not to be named). The recent economic downturn had led to the husband’s dismissal from a long-time job; the family lost their health insurance provided by that company.
Unfortunately, his wife has a condition exacerbated by arthritis that they can no longer afford the medication and regular specialist visits for. Because of mounting medical bills, they have the work. So, next month, the two, with their 5-year old daughter, will pack up their belongings and sell their house far below market value to move to Pennsylvania in search of a lower cost of living and minimum-wage employment. It sounds cliché, but it is a challenge we see all across our country.
And that is the point: 31 million Americans is not an abstract figure cooked up in some economists’ basement office of the Ford House Office Building. That 31 million is made up of people like the couple above. That 31 million is made up of me and a much, much smarter friend of mine. This legislation, for all of its faults, will extend the kind of lifeline to the American people unlike any major legislative accomplishment since Lyndon Johnson was in charge.
Every year, 18,000 people die because they lacked health insurance. We can stop that.
Children miss a lifetime of potential successes because their parents cannot afford to keep them healthy and in school. We can stop that.
Families must uproot their lives and chase the slim hopes of a job with health benefits. We can stop that.
Whatever the cost, we must stop it. The fact that we can pay for it completely and improve our nation’s fiscal outlook in the meantime, well, that is just icing on the cake.
Scott Harris is a UMass student. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.