Instead, consider the health care system we have now and what is at stake if we do nothing. Each year the cost of our medical system rises while wages remain flat. If we do nothing, U.S. health care will collapse under its own weight. We spend $7,000 per person annually in our country, more than any other nation. In spite of this staggering price tag, we have shorter life spans, more burden of disease, and a generally less healthy population than nations spending a fraction as much. We ranked 37th between Costa Rica and Slovenia in a study by the World Health Organization, and of 19 industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks last in the care for treatable illnesses. There are nearly 50 million uninsured people in the U.S., and here in Central Oregon the proportion of uninsured is even higher because of our younger, more mobile population.
Our health system is also an anchor dragging down business and economic prosperity. When uninsured patients are admitted to hospitals and bills go unpaid or only partially reimbursed, it costs hospitals more than $34 billion each year, more than five percent of total hospital revenue. Further, medical costs helped spur the collapse of the U.S. automobile industry and attach a hidden price tag to anything manufactured in America, making our goods less competitive in foreign markets whose businesses do not have to provide for their employees' medical coverage.
Even some who accept that allowing millions to go uninsured is wrong still argue for a market-based approach or insist that government involvement will lead to rationing. However, the past 50 years have shown that a purely free-market approach is neither cost effective nor better at making people healthy. And we need only look to our current system to see rationing in its most unjust form. Private insurers ration care because it is plain good corporate policy. Corporations operate to maximize profits, not provide medical care. In fact, paying for our care hurts the bottom line to the degree that private insurers spend a hefty sum in efforts to deny coverage, avoid paying for medical bills, and placing obstacles in the way of seeing a physician. Over 60 percent of bankruptcies are medically related. Even worse, uninsured patients who may receive their care in emergency rooms get inadequate preventative care and follow-up, and are often rationed right out of medical care completely. Treatment decisions should be between patients and their physicians, not a corporation bent on providing the least amount of care for the most shareholder profit. Rationing is not part of proposed medical reform plans, and the form of rationing we have now must be stopped.
Consider what we rely on our government to provide for us already - roads, national defense, law enforcement. Rarely do we clamor to build a highway or raise an army out of our own pockets. Health care in the U.S. is no less expensive yet we place its cost on the shoulders of those least able to afford it, the infirm and elderly. Why not instead look for examples of what our government has done well already. Medicare and social security are some of the most popular programs ever enacted. Both were controversial in their day but have proven quite effective at providing care to those over 65. There is little discussion about rationing within Medicare because without needing to turn a profit from patients or requiring expensive efforts directed at denying care, this government-sponsored health insurance costs less and operates more efficiently.
The prospect of health reform is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge. But as frightening as it may be, it is far less scary than the ailing system we have now. These are serious times that demand serious participation by all of us as members of a civilized nation. Change is in our nature as Americans and we have risen to the challenge before emerging a stronger and more prosperous people for it. We must do so again now. This is no time to fall prey to special interests intent on maintaining a failed status quo. The time for allowing millions to go without adequate medical care is over. We must demand of our elected officials, a strong government-sponsored plan to ensure everyone receives the medical care they need. Not because it is the only morally acceptable thing to do, but because financially we can no longer afford to do otherwise.
Dr. Boddie is a hospitalist physician in Bend and Redmond. He has worked for many years on health policy, global health, and environmental issues. Trained in internal medicine, Dr. Boddie previously worked with medically underserved populations in New York, Guyana, South America, and Uganda. He has also worked within the NHS, the British health system. He looks forward to health reform allowing greater access to care for his patients in Central Oregon.