Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Looming Health Care Crisis

An Op-Ed submission by three Harvard School of Public Health students: Alana Wooley, Katelyn Mack and Jamie Zwiebel. For your reading pleasure. Comments welcome!

As our government leaders grapple with the current economic crisis, another crisis is gaining momentum. We can no longer ignore its symptoms: rising rates of preventable, chronic illnesses; Americans facing trade-offs between doctor visits, prescription drugs, mortgage payments, gas or food; financial concerns determining patient treatment for catastrophic illnesses; and an inability to obtain insurance with a pre-existing illness, among others.  In 2007, 45 million Americans were uninsured.  These numbers will no doubt continue to climb as families and employers alike increasingly feel the direct impact of rising unemployment and inflation.  If we do not address the looming health care crisis, we will undeniably face yet another bailout, this time for health insurance companies and the health care community.
In the most recent presidential debate, Senator Barack Obama (D) told the nation he believed health care is a right and Senator John McCain (R) believed health care is a responsibility.  Whether it is a right or a responsibility, both candidates believe that access to and affordability of health care are important.  While we may disagree about solutions to and responsibility for the health care crisis, 51% of Republicans and 79% of Democrats believe that our nation’s broken health care system is in need of repair (Blendon et al. 2008). While the Presidential candidates agree that something needs to be done, their health care proposals are in vast opposition to one another. 
Senator McCain offers a short-term solution to this imminent crisis.  His health care plan proposes a $2500 and $5000 tax-credit for individuals and families, respectively, to help absorb the rising costs of health insurance.  However, not only is this credit, which is payable only to the insurance companies, considered taxable income, it does not address rising premium costs and treatment expenses.  While this tax credit may be beneficial for young, healthy adults, it would exacerbate the financial burden of health insurance for families and adults living with chronic or catastrophic illnesses. Simply offering a tax-credit to help deflect expenses for an already expensive health care system is not a sustainable solution and one that will be ineffective in reducing the rising numbers of uninsured Americans. 
Senator Obama offers a more comprehensive, long-term solution to the health care crisis. He proposes allowing individuals and families to keep their current employer-offered health care, or opt into a public insurance or obtain private insurance coverage through an insurance clearinghouse. The public insurance would offer coverage similar to that which Senator Obama and Senator McCain have as government officials. Contrary to rumors of socialized health care and fines for not obtaining insurance, this proposal only mandates health insurance coverage for children.  Senator Obama offers a more comprehensive plan that would extend insurance access to those whom the current system does not capture.  While this plan would reduce the number of uninsured Americans and improve coverage for children and families, Senator Obama’s plan would not cover everyone.
The health of our nation is central to the health of our workforce, the strength of our families and communities, and our national security. This election is an opportunity to ensure that the housing and credit woes we now face do not similarly beset the fragile US health care system.  As voters, we must elect someone with sound judgment and visionary thinking.  We can no longer afford short-term solutions.  Our next President must offer long-term, sustainable solutions to the long-standing dysfunction and discord of the US health care system. Let us enter the polls with the economy, health care, and education on our minds, all of which are inextricably linked together. Now is the time.  It is our responsibility to avoid another bailout blunder by electing the candidate with the best solution to improving the health and well being of all Americans.

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