America's health-care famine is slowly killing us

by Lesley Politi on January 15, 2009

We don’t have a health-care problem. We don’t have a health-care crisis. What we have is a health-care famine.

I realized this when a friend told me that she was not in favor of universal health insurance. She was opposed to paying for health care for all. She has a little boy with cancer. She was afraid that universal health care would mean her little boy would not be able to get an appointment with the oncologist.

“But all those other children with cancer deserve treatment, too, don’t they?” I asked. “I guess so,” she grudgingly admitted, “but I have to worry about my little boy.”

Too many other people’s children would be trying to get appointments and treatment. Too many other people would be competing for a scarce resource — the time of a doctor.

It is a health-care famine.

Perhaps you know the story of Jacob, who predicted seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. When famine came, he was prepared with full granaries. His brothers, who had sold him into slavery, begged him for grain for their starving families and he gave them grain. We are like Jacob’s brothers in the famine, begging for health care. But for us, there is no Jacob. There is only the for-profit medical-industrial complex, gate-keeping us out of the health-care system.

When too many people are fighting to get the scarce stuff to stay alive, whether the scarce stuff is food or health care, that is a famine.

When those of us who have barely enough are willing to sacrifice those others of us who have too little or none at all, that is a famine.

When our own situation is so desperate that we turn a blind eye to the more desperate situation of others, that is a famine.

When dog-eat-dog surpasses “do unto others” as the Golden Rule, that is a famine.

A famine never strikes everyone equally. In a famine, the have-nots become the have-nothings while the haves become the have-barely-enoughs. And, as always, the wealthy survive, even thrive, even profit, from the shortages that are killing others.

This famine is not new — it has been slowly building for years.

The price of our privately run, profit-driven medical-industrial complex has caused this famine. About one-third of every dollar going to health care pays for administrative costs — for utilization reviewers, for computer programmers, for advertising, for sales managers, for executives of all kinds, for billing clerks, for coding clerks, for CEO bonuses in the millions and hundreds of million — and for profits.

We are not talking about government waste. We are not talking about the cost of actually treating the sick and nurturing the healthy. We are talking only about the cost of running our profit-making health insurance industry.

One third of the health-care dollar — that amount is far more than enough to give excellent medical care to everyone in the nation. It is far more than enough to fund the (privately-owned) surgical centers and imaging centers and Lasik centers that sprout up on every corner. It is even more than the amount we have given to Wall Street to bail out financiers and bankers from their hubristic near-demise.

The famine has grown while insurance companies charge higher premiums and reduce coverage, while employers cut their contributions and increase deductibles, while legislators reduce Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program budgets, and on and on.

We are in a health-care famine. Millions of us are suffering and millions more will suffer soon. More than 20,000 people die each year in this famine because they cannot afford the price of for-profit health insurance.

The famine will not end until, like Jacob, we open the granaries and give aid to the starving. The health-care famine will not end until we end the money-hoarding that health insurance companies call “reserves” and “administrative costs” and “profits.”

It will not end until we open our blind eye and see the plight of our neighbor. It will not end until we learn that tolerating a profit-making middleman in the health-care system builds a wall between patient and doctor. It will not end until we learn that good things for everyone can only be accomplished by the will of everyone.

It will not end until we pay for health care in the same way that we pay for everything else that we value highly — our security, our freedom, our laws. It will not end until we have a national health-care system that covers everyone equally and is paid for by everyone equitably.

It is time for national single-payer health insurance. It is time to remove the profit-making middleman from medical care. It is time to see health care for the public good that it is and not for the profitable business it has become. Support Medicare for all.

Clark Newhall is a physician and attorney in Salt Lake City.


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