OPINION: Americans need universal health care as an entitlement

JACKSON – My old friend Gene Taylor admirably has been a fiscal hawk in Congress, but when he views the healthcare crisis through that prism, he comes down on the wrong side of this country’s most urgent social need.
When the 4th District Democratic Congressman said on Mississippi Public Broadcasting recently that the U.S. couldn’t cover all of the people who lack health care protection he was wrong. What we can’t afford is the status quo.
Americans spend twice as much on health care as other industrialized nations yet the quality of care in the U.S. ranks 20th according to the World Health Organization. And we still have 47 million Americans who have no medical care coverage. One reason: Health care insurance has risen two or three times faster than the rate of inflation since 2000, and thousands of Americans can’t afford coverage.
Dr. Lamar Weems of Jackson, former president of the Mississippi State Medical Association (and normally conservative), in a MSMA Journal editorial stunningly accuses physicians as “largely to blame” for the health care cost crisis which President Obama is now attacking.
Tragically, health care reform is being made a political issue. It’s not. It’s a life or death issue. Health care should rank alongside education as an entitlement for all Americans.
Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt who stuck their necks out for universal coverage have been blocked either by the American Medical Association, or the pharmaceutical industry, or the health insurance industry, and in almost every instance, hard-core Republicans.
Unfortunately, Gene Taylor seems blinded by what overhauling the entire health care system might cost, adding to government obligations for Medicaid and Medicare as well as health care programs for federal employees (Congress included) and the Veterans Administration. Where I take issue is that Gene seems to assume that the entrenched health care industry for profit can’t be reformed by government intervention.
An OB-GYN doctor in Taylor’s Moss Point town hall audience asked him a cogent question: Why can Medicare operate with only a 3 percent administrative overhead, while Cigna, the giant private health care insurance company, has a 20 to 30 percent administrative cost. Gene’s answer did hit on one good thing – that the exemption of insurance companies from anti-trust laws should be repealed – but he didn’t call for reining in their overhead and profit margin.
My friend, 77-year Dr. John Bower, who built artificial kidney units statewide that serve thousands statewide unable to pay for care, unabashedly advocates a “single payer” or public option plan. He says $400 billion could be saved if health insurance industry executive pay, bonuses and profits were cut. That, alone he said would be enough to provide health care for 47 million now not covered.
Meantime, Dr. Aaron Shirley, the African-American health care pioneer who now heads the Jackson Medical Mall operated in cooperation with the University Medical Center, says hundreds of Mississippians from every part of the state with no medical insurance (or who lost it from unemployment) come to the mall to receive low-cost or subsidized medical treatment unavailable to them back home.
Shirley who also insists only a single payer plan will solve the U.S. health care crisis, contended that each Mississippi Congressman’s district has counties that are listed as “medically underserved” by the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “How can they oppose reform?” he asks.
Most Republicans who oppose a public option plan forget their revered Ronald Reagan in 1988 advocated adding a catastrophic care option (with out-patient prescription drugs) to the Medicare Program to cover 35 million seniors and physically disabled. Congress passed it and he signed it. Funding would come from a small overall Medicare tax increase and a surtax on higher income Medicare beneficiaries.
But before it became operative, it was repealed in 1989 (under President George H.W. Bush) after Congressional sponsors were besieged by protesters organized by the pharmaceutical industry. Sound familiar?

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through edinman@earthlink.net.

Bill Minor