Monday, July 27, 2009

Why public health insurance is essential to save American lives

The current debate on health reform is getting lost in the numbers and dollars game in Congress. The arguments have become about price. What is the cheaper option? How can we pay for it? What is the best value? It is about the health insurance industry defending its ground, and attempting to maintain the current status quo. It is about how this industry may continue to make substantial profits out of the misery of all those patients who are sick, while maintaining a system that encourages them to avoid making payments as much as possible, to either patients or doctors. It is about a system where large special interests are able to negotiate low payments to doctors who have little bargaining power or strength, and which leads doctors to increasingly insist that patients pay them directly, rather than go through their insurers, hence letting the insurers completely off the financial hook.

Let's put a real human face on what is happening in American healthcare at present.

As a physician working in a major academic medical center in California, let me tell a few stories of some of the horrors that I have seen that are directly caused by the appalling way that American healthcare is organized and paid for. These stories are clear evidence that we cannot continue with our current system of insurance funding, and simply have to have a public insurance option available to offer choice to all Americans, and to create competition for private insurance companies which they just don't have at present.

Firstly let me say that I am extremely proud to be working in this medical center, which last year provided over $160 million of uncompensated care to the uninsured. This is about double the year before, a fact that is directly the consequence of the recession, increased numbers of uninsured patients, and an increased level of social poverty.

Think of the middle-aged homeless woman with diabetes who was admitted yet again with pneumonia. She has been sleeping rough, and in great personal danger having been assaulted numerous times. She cannot get out of a cycle of poverty, homelessness, illness and peril, and every time she recovers in hospital, it is sickening for the medical and nursing staff to know that she is being discharged to the street, where the cycle will continue. She has no insurance, no family, no future and no hope. Her medical prognosis is dreadful, she is unable to receive any regular follow up care for her diabetes, and she will probably not live for more than a few years unless there are major changes in her situation. She desperately needs good medical and social care, but there is little for her to receive, and she ends up costing society a huge amount because of her multiple expensive hospital admissions, occurring because she has no regular outpatient care. She would be so much better off with regular public health insurance, and would at least have a chance of breaking this cycle.

Think of the recently unemployed father of three young children whose wife died a year ago. He lost his company sponsored health insurance when he lost his job, and is unable to afford to pay the quoted premiums from other insurance companies because of his possible prior history of high blood pressure, found on two medical exams in the past, andwhich is seen as a risk factor for possible cardiac problems in the future.

Think of the patient with chronic schizophrenia who has suddenly had his treatment program closed by a county mental health department desperate to save money and faced with the decision to close either their firefighting or mental health services to meet their budget. This patient has nowhere to go for treatment, eventually runs out of medication, becomes psychotic again, tries to kill himself because of his delusions, and is re-admitted to an inpatient facility for several weeks at great public expense.

These are the faces of the health reform debate. These are the people that President Obama is fighting for, and which the insurance industry will not help, which they prefer to ignore. This is why we have to have a public health insurance option. And this is why we have to have true health reform in this country.

Peter Yellowlees MD has recently published “Your Health in the Information Age – how you and your doctor can use the Internet to work together”. It is available at and most online bookstores.

No comments:

Post a Comment