Health care crisis shapes up into a blockbuster
I don't need to go to the movies to see this summer's latest disaster film: It's unfolding before our eyes. Our lack of health care is a disaster. Meet the cast:
July 13, 2004
Minimum wage earners. You know these people: They pump gas into our cars, cut our hair, wait on us when we buy fast food. They are trying to raise their kids, pay their rent and make ends meet, just like everyone else. They are the working low-income folks, laboring too many hours for too little pay.
Taxpayers. That's you and me. We're desperately trying to hold budgets together, concerned that we are not going to have enough to protect ourselves in our old age or deal with our aging parents right now. We're trying to hold the line.
Our state government. During the past 12 years, our government has seen resources for fire, safety, social services and basic needs stretched and battered. But we still want good service.
The most vulnerable. As the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, I'm very aware of this last group - the poor, seniors, the disabled, the mentally ill - a cast of thousands, with very few options for relief.
Our community is living out this disaster of a morality play. On July 1, the Oregon Health Plan was "frozen" - not accepting any new applicants. Currently, more than 50,000 adults are on OHP. That number needs to drop to 24,000 by next year in order for the Department of Health and Human Services to make its budget targets. Statewide, more than 400,000 people are uninsured.
As a nonprofit social service provider, I don't see a Hollywood ending here. Our social service system, called the "safety net," has big holes that are getting bigger.
In Register-Guard reporter David Steves' July 1 article, "Health plan enrollment cut off," Maribeth Healey of Oregonians for Health Security said this about uninsured Oregonians: "They end up in the emergency room, which thereby increases the cost of health care for everyone."
Undoubtedly, that's an issue, but there are others. What happens when the worker is ill and misses a significant amount of work? What happens when the utility bill isn't paid, and then the rent, and then the family is evicted?
St. Vincent's Interfaith Emergency Shelter System for homeless families with children just closed its doors for the summer. More than 50 faith communities housed 109 different families during the school year. How many more will they be asked to house next school year?
What happens when prescriptions for the mentally ill aren't available and people act out? Shall they be sent to our already-overcrowded jails and quickly released?
What happens then?
Unlike a movie, this drama involves real people who suffer and die. They do it quietly, where we can't see, and in places we probably don't want to go, but the suffering and the pain are real.
Compassion for those around us should not be optional or a budget item choice. The Register-Guard article states: "The reductions were spurred by defeat of last February's tax-raising ballot measure."
Regardless of your political affiliation, what we have chosen for the vulnerable and the poor brings pain, suffering, extra cost and social disruption to us all. Compassion is a value that is a responsibility and a privilege carrying a price.
It comes down to hard choices. We need to tell our legislators to fund health care for all. Here's why:
• Money: A failing health care system is a real cost to our society. By not dealing with the health care needs of our low-income people, we are costing ourselves more - we will all pay, through more jails, higher health insurance costs, and more homelessness. Not choosing to fund health care is poor stewardship of our resources and is unconscionably poor management.
• Morality: Taking care of people is the right thing to do.
The disaster is now. Disaster has already struck our current health care climate. It's time to do something about it before it gets worse.
Mark Twain said, "The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't want and do what you'd rather not."
I'd rather not pay higher taxes, but how else can we ensure the health of the system and thus the health of our fellow citizens?
As with all disaster movies, there is a clock ticking down to impending doom. Time's up. In some ways, we're already past it. But that doesn't mean we can't choose to do better. I urge you to contact your elected officials and let them know that health care for all is a priority and to invest money in our health care system.
We can rewrite the ending to this disaster and make sure there isn't a sequel.
Terry McDonald of Eugene is executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County.
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