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A Push For A National Health Service?

by Sue Wilson, Oct 10, 2003
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Since this health column last reported on the plight of the millions of uninsured and under-insured people in New York and across America, the situation has, unfortunately, gotten worse.

Health care costs are soaring once again; insurance premiums are rising at double-digit rates; the economy, despite all the current administration's talk of a recovery, seemingly remains stalled in the doldrums; states are in fiscal crisis; and continuing layoffs have yanked from millions more Americans the employer-provided health insurance they once took for granted. A September 30 report from the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that, between 2001 and 2002, the number of uninsured Americans rose sharply (by 2.4 million) for the third year in a row. That means 43.6 million Americans, or more than 15 percent of the population, now lack even basic health coverage. Millions more are underinsured. In New York State, the percentage of uninsured is higher than the national average and the total well over three million people, most of them in New York City. According to the Institute of Medicine, already 18,000 Americans die every year because of inadequate insurance; as more lose their coverage, the numbers will rise.

But advocates of a universal national health system – at least, the optimists among them -- see promise amidst the general catastrophe. They are allowing themselves to hope that the erosion of health coverage among Americans who until recently considered themselves comfortably middle-class – and thought the lack of health insurance the problem mostly of a limited subclass of the impoverished, the disadvantaged, and the marginal -- will have real political repercussions in the forthcoming presidential elections and in the halls of Congress.

Voices ranging from liberal politicians to middle-class consumer groups to physicians can now be heard saying the same thing: that after decades of misfires – most famously Bill Clinton's messy failure ten years ago to achieve his campaign promise of universal health care – America, the last holdout, may finally join all the other countries of the industrialized world in adopting some form of national health insurance.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll done in July did indeed find that health care costs ranked as Americans' top economic concern, cited by 24 percent of respondents. By contrast, only 16 percent cited high taxes as their main concern. The incumbent and the other would-be candidates in the next presidential election clearly feel pressure to respond. President George W. Bush and most of the major Democratic presidential contenders have each proposed health care reforms, ranging from Bush's plan for tax credits to help the uninsured buy insurance to the Democrats' various proposals to expand health coverage by rolling back Bush's tax cuts.

But all of these plans retain the basic forms of our current health insurance system -- for-profit hospitals and HMOs; private insurance companies that reap high profits and also spend considerable amounts (subsidized by the premiums of the insured) for marketing, overhead, executive salaries, and profit-sharing with investors; and great influence wielded by the hugely powerful and profitable pharmaceutical industry.

But a group of doctors has come up with a far more sweeping and radical plan, one which calls for a true one-payer, nationalized health service that would cover everybody, and that would (theoretically at least) redirect our vast health care expenditures from corporate coffers and back into health care services.

According to one of the proposal's authors, Chicago physician Dr. Quentin Young, American doctors have traditionally been conservatives when it comes to health care reforms, and they almost reflexively tend to oppose anything that smacks of government-administered health insurance. "But now even doctors are realizing that there's something worse than the government, and that's corporations," Dr. Young said. "Even people who have insurance, so-called 'good' insurance, are now finding their charges and coverage being questioned, because the insurance companies have discovered that simply not paying out claims is the best way to maximize their profits. Doctors can't provide their patients with the care they know is needed, and they're being harassed to death to justify what they do provide."

The plan was developed by Physicians for a National Health Service (PNHP), an organization of 11,000 doctors, many of them prominent. Two former Surgeons General and a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine lead the group, which went public with its so-called "Proposal of the Physicians' Working Group for Single-Payer National Health Insurance" at a press conference in New York in August. The next day, the proposal appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA 8/13/03), which some in the group see as a victory in and of itself, although a spokesman for the (generally conservative) American Medical Association said that the AMA itself still opposes a single-payer health care system. (The AMA has a long history of battling government-administered health insurance; for example, it opposed the creation of Medicaid in 1965.)

The plan, which has now been endorsed by more than 10,000 physicians, calls for a government-financed national health insurance system that would cover every American for all necessary medical care from infancy to death. (In essence, it would be like an improved, expanded version of Medicare, but available to all, not just the elderly and disabled.) Prescription drugs, mental health care, and long-term care would be covered. The government would administer the plan, but most doctors and hospitals would remain private, and patients would be free to choose any physician or hospital they wished. Health professionals would decide what services should be covered, based on the latest medical evidence. Private insurance companies would still exist, but could only provide insurance for services such as elective surgeries that would not be covered by the government plan.

The full text of the proposal, which contains further details and cost-savings analyses, can be read online here (In PDF format).

The proposal criticizes the incremental, piecemeal health reform plans offered by Bush and the main Democratic presidential hopefuls.

"Proposals that call for tax credits or that push seniors into private HMOs all retain the role of private insurers. They are doomed to failure, because they perpetuate administrative waste, and make universal coverage unaffordable," said Dr. Oliver Fein, chairman of the New York Metro Chapter of PNHP, who presented the proposal at the New York press conference.

The plan's authors claim that single-payer national health insurance, far from increasing health care costs, would save at least $200 billion each year by eliminating the high overhead, marketing, profits, and administrative costs that private, for-profit insurers divert money to (rather than spending it on actual health care services).

"We spend $1.6 trillion on health care each year, which is one-seventh of our Gross National Product. That would be a very high cost for an excellent health care system; and what we have is a rather poor one," Dr. Young said. "Compared to countries that spend far less than we do, America scores very poorly on the standard, accepted indices of public health."

But is America, the sole holdout among industrialized countries in terms of adopting a national health plan, ready for such sweeping change?

"Well, I'm old enough to remember the civil rights movement, and anybody who predicted that before it happened would have been laughed at as some utopian dreamer," said Young. "I would say that the conditions for mass social change are ripening. There's a vast discontent out there with the current system, whose weaknesses are being starkly exposed right now. It will take a monumental effort, and a change of administration, for this to happen, but I think in the end it will."

Sue Wilson is a journalist who writes frequently on health and science topics for such outlets as the New York Times, WNET, and UNICEF.

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