Sunday, June 21, 2009

Will Congress Sell Out Americans’ Health Care to Insurance Companies Again?

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Benjamin Franklin

The assault on a public option for health care is a mounting obscenity as Republicans, insurance lobbyists, and some Democrats roll out a propaganda campaign designed to scare Americans – and Congress – into turning their backs once again on the American people in favor of corporate greed.

Contrary to industry propaganda, the system we have does not work. High costs are bankrupting families and businesses and our quality of care is abominable. The United States is the richest country in the world but it provides the poorest health care among Western industrialized countries. According to the World Health Organization, The United States ranks 37th – lower than all the Western European countries. We rank lower than Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Israel, and Canada. (France is ranked #1, Italy #2, and Japan #3.) What a miserable shame we can’t – or won’t – do as well

Ranked by “Health System Attainment and Performance,” the U.S. was 72nd, between Argentina and Bhutan!

Nor is the U.S. any better than some Third World countries in average life expectancy. According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s rankings for 2009, the U.S. ranks 50th, (78.11 years), between Wallis and Futuna (You aren’t alone if you never heard of these two tiny islands in the South Pacific.) and Albania. In comparison, Japan’s average life expectancy is 82.12 years, Canada’s 81.23 years, and France’s 80.98 years.

With respect to infant mortality, the U.S. has the worst rate in the Western world, ranking 37th with 6.37 deaths per 1,000 live births, between South Korea and Croatia. In comparison, Sweden’s infant mortality rate is 2.76 deaths per 1,000 live births. Keep in mind that these are average rates. In America’s inner cities, the rates are much worse. In 2007, Washington, D.C., had the highest rate: 12.22 deaths per 1,000 live births. In New York City, the infant mortality rate for black babies was 9.8 deaths for every 1,000 live births compared with 3.9 deaths for every 1,000 live births among white babies. Minnesota had the lowest infant mortality rate in the U.S.: 4.78 per 1,000 live births.

The U.S. maternal mortality rate is scandalous, ranking 41st among 171 countries surveyed by the United Nations. Even South Korea has a lower maternal mortality rate than the U.S. Based on the United Nations’ 2005 estimates, one in 4,800 American women carry a lifetime risk of death from pregnancy, something the anti-choice crowd doesn’t bother to mention. In contrast, among the ten top-ranked industrialized countries, fewer than one woman in 16,400 carry such a risk. The most probable reason is that many European countries and Japan guarantee women high-quality health care and family planning services.

For those who tout the U.S. health system as “the best in the world,” there’s an important qualification – IF YOU’RE RICH. Anyone in the top one percent of wealthiest Americans can buy the best health care in the world no matter where they have to go to get it. But the majority of American citizens have to fight their way through a maze of bureaucratic fine print to obtain health care that, in far too may cases, is no better than that in the Third World. Families have the triple financial whammy of foreclosures, lost jobs, and mounting healthcare costs while insurance executives and pharmaceutical companies rake in huge profits. Paying for health care is the major reason for personal bankruptcies, a situation that analysts say will continue unless Congress passes meaningful health reform.

Our current healthcare system is not only a burden for citizens, it also burdens physicians. By enabling insurance companies to run our healthcare system, Congress usurps physicians’ medical expertise and burdens them with voluminous paperwork and restrictions. The nation’s doctors want to be healers not secretarial assistants to health insurance companies. Doctors – not insurance companies – are the experts in providing medical services, yet in too many cases, insurers dictate medical decisions to doctors and hospitals. Sometimes patients die because an insurer has delayed or denied needed medical care. Yet those who support corporate profits rather than public health don’t seem to give a damn.

President Obama calls for a public option. The message of the last election is that the people support a public option. Now is the best opportunity since Clinton’s failure on health care for Congress to pass a real health reform bill. If our elected officials turn their backs on we-the-people this time, such an opportunity may not come again in our lifetime.

NOTE: Since publishing this post, economist Dean Baker has published an excellent commentary on Truthout. See ""Spreading the Wealth Around to the Insurance Industry and Friends," Truthout, June 22, 2009.

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