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Should President Obama Postpone Full-Scale Health Care Reform for Now and Seek More Efficiencies in the Existing System?

America’s broken health care system requires more than just tinkering.  It needs a major overhaul.

Yet, many are pressuring President Obama to go back on his campaign pledge to offer a government sponsored low cost insurance option in favor of a series of small fixes or doing nothing at all.  They say it would be too dangerous to move forward now on a government financed, privately provided system because of the weakened U.S. economy.  They say we just can’t afford it. 

On the contrary, we can’t afford not to.  Full, responsible health care reform is an investment in America’s future that protects employers, employees, and, yes, the unemployed who need good health to get and keep a job.  The weakened economy is precisely why President Obama needs to address this problem boldly and immediately.  Simply making current procedures more efficient will not solve the fundamental problem of the American health care system:  Most of us get our insurance through our jobs or through a family member’s job.

That makes less and less sense every month as over half a million additional Americans lose their jobs, adding to the pre-recession 47 million Americans without any health insurance.  There was once a sense that our economy was infallible, a belief largely based on the high-flying numbers boasted by Wall Street.  What we know now is that no one is immune from job loss – from a GM assembly line worker to Wall Street wheelers and dealers.

Health care is a human right and access to it should not be dependent on being employed or being able to afford your own private insurance, really a privilege exclusive to the rich these days.  A private health plan costs a family on average $12,000 per year.

But if efficiency is all the naysayers care about, let’s compare private insurance to our nation’s premier publicly funded system – Medicare.  Medicare wins hands down.

Private health insurance wastes $350 billion every year, enough to pay for high quality comprehensive health care for everyone.  Where does that money go?  With private insurance, 30 cents of every dollar pays for non-medical related costs: marketing, billing, denying coverage, hassling patients and doctors, profits, and astronomical CEO salaries; Medicare overhead, on the other hand, costs just 3 cents on the dollar.

Medicare was enacted in 1965, implemented in 1966, covering services at 6,600 hospitals, 250,000 physicians, 1,300 home health agencies, and some nursing homes. At that time, The New York Times reported the smooth start on its first day, when 160,000 eligible patients who were in the hospital at the moment nationwide were covered immediately. By the end of the first year, more than 95% of eligible patients and doctors participated, and 90% of the 43 million eligible older and disabled individuals were enrolled -- all before computers.

Ironically the cost saving efficiencies advocated as an alternative to full scale reform by the people opposed to the President’s government financed plan are the same already in use by Medicare:  1) doctors’ only “paperwork” would be billing the government electronically, as they now do for Medicare, eliminating the myriad insurance companies forms and processes that have become expensive and unmanageable. 2) Patients and taxpayers would benefit from negotiated prices of prescription drugs. 3) Doctors would emphasize prevention.

All the evidence shows that publicly financed systems, unburdened by the need for marketing and profits, can provide better care, less expensively.  No one is left out and you can take the coverage with you from job to job.

The opponents argue this would eliminate choice - a word that gives the aura of freedom.  What they don’t seem to understand is we want free choice of a doctor, rather than choice of a costly, and for some prohibitively so, insurance company.

Amy Isaacs is National Director of Americans for Democratic Action – the most experienced independent organization dedicated to liberal politics and a liberal future.

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