May 4, 2005
link to www.springfieldnews.com
Despite exceeding all other industrialized nations in total health care spending, American do not have broad access to care. Well over forty million Americans, nearly ten million of them children, remain uninsured, and the numbers are steadily rising.
Millions more are struggling to pay premiums that are growing much faster than wages, while seeing their benefits shrink. For many workers, whose incomes are barely too great to qualify for Medicaid, insurance is becoming a luxury sacrificed to pay for housing, food, and transportation.
While some Americans have access to the best medical care and the most sophisticated diagnostic tools in the world, others are left to overcrowded and expensive emergency rooms, free clinics, or no health care at all. Health problems are left to fester untreated until crisis or catastrophe, and the expensive medical care that results is often then passed on to the rest of society.
Besides being morally wrong, as each year passes this health care crisis is costing our nation more dearly. Total health expenditures are absorbing a steadily greater share of GDP. Health care spending by government is soaring. And as our population rapidly ages over the coming decades, at the same time as our ratio of workers to retirees steadily shrinks, the rising costs of public program obligations, already burdensome, will be unsustainable.
The growing disparity in our health care system violates America's deep, long-standing commitment to fairness for all citizens. That a nation as rich as ours cannot guarantee access to quality and affordable health care for all of its citizens is one of the great moral crimes of our times. That a nation with the highest health spending among industrialized nations lags behind in life expectancy and leads in potential years of life lost, in addition to having one of the developed world's worst infant mortality rates, in inexcusable. We can and must do better.
Thankfully, comprehensive change does not require dismantling our health system. It requires political courage and popular momentum. It requires tough choices and shared sacrifices, to balance the competing goals of sustainable costs, broad access, and good quality. It requires incremental implementation in order to minimize disruptions and facilitate political consensus.
Most of all, fixing the health care system requires changes in American attitudes. For example, no longer can we spend 85% of the lifetime health care dollar in the last six months of life, and still expect braod access and good quality health care during our entire lives preceding. Such unbalanced emphases must gradually change if we are extend the right of health care to every American.
The path to that goal will be measured in years rather than months. Americans must urge their political leaders to take the long and steady course, rather than fast and ultimately meaningless actions meant to placate voters with displays of official energy. Patchwork solutions will not do.
America's health care crisis is not unsolvable, but politicians must first cease from overemphasizing lesser problems and underestimating greater ones. Health care ranks as one of our generation's greatest challenges. Ensuring quality, affordable, and accessible health care for every American, will keep our families healthy, our businesses competitive, and our country strong.
Todd Huffman, M.D., is a Springfield pediatrician affiliated with McKenzie-Willamette hospital.