WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com)–Flanked by a number of the nation’s most prominent physicians and progressive leaders of Congress, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), introduced a new bill Feb. 4 that he argued would provide an effective way to control skyrocketing U.S. health costs while extending coverage to all 42 million Americans now without health insurance.
The need for a national health insurance system in this wealthy country is critical and actually getting worse every year, according to at least two members of Congress–Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), and Del. Donna Christian-Christensen (D-Virgin Islands)–both of whom are physicians.
Rep. McDermott and Del. Christensen, along with Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), are original co-sponsors of Rep. Conyers’ United States National Health Insurance Act.
“Our country leads all others in health care spending, yet more than 80 million are either uninsured or underinsured,” Del. Christensen said. “Lack of insurance is the seventh leading cause of death, resulting in more than 80,000 deaths annually, many of whom are people of color.
“Almost one-third of all Hispanics and one-fifth of all Blacks in the United States have no health insurance, compared with 12.2 percent of Whites,” she said.
Dr. David Himmelstein, an associate professor at Harvard University Medical School, recalled the moment when he realized that something in addition to delivering treatment to patients had to be done by caring physicians.
“Twenty-five years ago, I was standing in an emergency room in Oakland, Calif., when a young woman was brought in after having been hit by a truck while walking next to a road,” Dr. Himmelstein told the forum.
The woman “had been taken to a fully equipped private hospital,” where she had only one procedure done, a “wallet biopsy” which was negative. She was then shoved into an ambulance and transferred 30 miles across the county, where we received her and discovered a ruptured aorta, a fractured pelvis and six other long-bone fractures.
“We were unable to stabilize her at our hospital because the open-heart surgical program had been closed, because it was too profitable to leave to a public hospital. We had to then urgently transfer her to a third hospital, where we paid the bill from the county hospital.”
Miraculously, he said, the woman survived, but the incident convinced him that part of his work had to include advocacy.
Dr. Himmelstein said at that time there were 21 million uninsured people in the country. He said Americans were paying $1,000 per capita then for health care. “Of course, both of those figures are now dwarfed. We have twice as many uninsured, and five times the health care costs, and rising rapidly on both counts,” he said.
The single-payer national health insurance program proposed by Rep. Conyers would restore free choice of physicians to patients, and it would provide comprehensive prescription drug coverage to seniors, as well as to younger people, according to Dr. Quentin Young, national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Plan, former president of the American Public Health Association and former chief of Medicine at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.
“Good news,” Dr. Young told the forum. “There is now a way to exit the nightmare of a collapsing health system. We no longer have to put up with the outrageous costs that keep millions of Americans from receiving medical care and needed medications. Nor will tens of thousands of families have to declare bankruptcy over medical bills.
“Universal, single-payer national health insurance takes the resources we have in place and deals with them in an intelligent manner, excluding the tragic hemorrhage of resources into non-health entities,” he said.
Those non-health entities combine to form a powerful special interest group, according to another expert, Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine. They conspire to propagate a variety of myths, which have so far doomed health reform in Congress.
“Myth No. 1 is that we can’t afford a national health care system,” said Dr. Angell. “My answer is that we can’t afford not to have a national health care system. A single-payer system would be far more efficient, since it would eliminate excess administrative costs, profits, cost-shifting and unnecessary duplication.
She said myth No. 2 says that innovative technology would be scarce under a single payer system. This misconception is based on the fact that there are indeed waits for elective procedures in some countries with national systems, such as the UK and Canada. But that’s because they spend far less on health-care than we do, she added.
“For them (UK and Canada) the problem is not the system, it’s the money. For us, it’s not the money, it’s the system. The money is already there, it’s just going for the wrong things,” said Dr. Angell.
While the U.S. spends several times more per person than all other industrialized countries in Europe and Asia (all of which have national health insurance systems), the U.S. has a higher infant mortality rate and shorter life expectancy than any of its counterparts, according to economist Dean Baker of the Center of Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
In addition, tens of millions of Americans in need of emergency-room care are denied it, according to Dr. Himmelstein. At least 20 percent of U.S. hospitals have been cited for violating a ban against refusing to deliver emergency care to patients in need, a ban he helped enact.
Sadly, he said, 10 percent of U.S. hospitals have been cited for violating that same ban on more than one occasion. That results in 300,000 Americans being denied emergency care each year, despite the fact that such denials are illegal.
The National Health Insurance Act would actually reduce federal health spending by $56 billion in 2005 while extending coverage and care to all the uninsured, said Mr. Conyers. Without reform, he continued, the average employer that offers coverage will contribute $2,600 to health care per employee in 2005 for “skimpier benefits” than those provided by the legislation.
Under this proposal, the average costs to employers for a worker making $30,000 per year will be reduced to $1,155, less than $100 per month, Mr. Conyers said.
Every person living in the U.S. and the U.S. territories would receive a U.S. National Health Insurance Card and ID number upon enrollment. The program would cover all medically necessary services, including primary care, inpatient care, outpatient care, emergency care, prescription drugs, durable medical equipment, long-term care, mental health services, dentistry, eye care, chiropractic, and substance abuse treatment.
In addition, according to Mr. Conyers, patients would have their choice of physicians, providers, hospitals, clinics and practices.
Supporters are planning political action to increase support for the legislation this year. Organized by Del. Christensen, the CBC is planning a two-day Health Braintrust and rally this spring. Experts and legislators are scheduled to meet to discuss plans for a national health insurance system on April 28, and to rally on the West Front of the Capitol on April 29.
“I would describe this as the most important legislation I ever proposed,” Rep. Conyers said, “but then I also introduced the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday bill.”