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January 25, 2006

Pay up

Group urges Kentucky legislators to support federal bill pushing universal health care

The last time Sandie Limpert had a job that paid for her health insurance, Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office and a bunch of college hockey players whipped the Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

It was 1980.

Since then, aside from a brief stint on Medicaid, Limpert, 53, has gone without. Now she is an activist working to draw attention to the concept of universal health care in the United States.

“For me, this is a serious issue,” Limpert told representatives on the state’s Health and Welfare Committee last week.

She was one of more than two dozen members of the interest group Kentuckians for Single Payer Healthcare who drove to Frankfort to encourage the passage of HCR 40, a resolution urging the U.S. Congress to pass the National Health Insurance Act sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.

KSPH got what it came for — the committee passed HCR 40 by a vote of 9-3 — but the victory was merely ceremonial.
There are numerous figures that proponents of universal health care can cite: 46 million Americans without health care — 582,000 of them in Kentucky alone. Roughly 18,000 people die each year without health insurance, according to the Institute of Medicine.

Still, the concept of nationalized health care is a lightning rod issue. Republican committee members countered that HR 676, the health insurance act proposed by Conyers, is nothing more than socialized medicine, and that the government would administer health care inefficiently. But it’s not.

Under Conyers’ bill, HR 676, a single-payer system would allow a patient to choose his or her health care provider, who would then be reimbursed with government funds. According to data included with the bill, single-payer plans would save the federal government $150 billion on paperwork and $50 billion by allowing bulk-purchasing of prescription drugs, which is prohibited under federal law. Employers who pay 8.5 percent of their payroll toward employees’ health coverage would pay 3.3 percent, and private insurers would be prohibited from providing health insurance that duplicates the proposed benefits.

Garrett Adams, a retired doctor who specializes in infectious diseases in children and a member of Physicians for a National Health Plan, described single-payer health care as publicly financed health care delivered by private doctors. The plan would save money, he said, by eliminating the 20 percent to 30 percent of each health care dollar that goes toward the marketing and administrative costs of for-profit health insurance companies.

“Health care is not a marketable commodity,” Adams said. “It’s a social good.”

He compared what the United States spends on health care with the amount spent by the United Kingdom, Sweden, France, Japan and Germany. Conclusion: Americans spend more than all of them combined.

“Even now, there’s enough public money to fund a national health insurance plan in this country,” Adams said.

Legislators agreed that the health care system needs improvement, but they disagreed on how it should be fixed. Committee Chairman Tom Burch, who voted for the resolution, sees the single-payer option as inevitable. “Our biggest investment is our people,” he said. “It’s gonna happen.”

Rep. Scott Brinkman, R-Louisville, pressed Adams, who also testified, for hard numbers on the cost to taxpayers to join such a plan. Adams said that 95 percent of Americans would pay less for health care under Conyers’ bill because it would eliminate co-pays for doctors’ visits, deductibles and premiums.

Compared with other countries, state Republican legislators said government-financed health care has had mixed results in countries like Canada.

Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Burlington, said she’s traveled with physicians there and met a woman who had to wait two years to see an orthopedic surgeon.

“I’m not sure that government can do a better job,” she said.
But Ewell Scott, a doctor from Morehead, Ky., cautioned people not to mischaracterize a nationalized health care system as “socialized medicine.”

Patients can still have private doctors under single-payer, which he described as a fee-for-service program, paid for by the government. Without this, insurance companies will continue to discriminate, leaving more and more people without health insurance.

“We want teachers to have health care benefits,” he said. “But what about other classes of people?”

For her part, Limpert believes it’s only a matter of time before the United States joins the rest of the industrialized world and adopts some form of universal health care. She sees state and federal legislators’ opposition to it as proof of their allegiances to health insurance and pharmaceutical companies with strong lobbying arms in Washington.

And she won’t feel bad if, in the course of America adopting single-payer plans, health insurance companies lose business.

“Some of these companies are big enough to reinvent themselves,” she said.

Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com

Single-payer: what it is
Despite what insurance companies and other naysayers might have you believe, single-payer health care is not socialized medicine. Nor should it call to mind long white beards, waiting room delays or Karl Marx. The difference is simple: Socialized medicine is when the government employs doctors and hospitals. It’s like that in England, Spain and here, with Veterans’ Affairs, for instance.

With single-payer, on the other hand, the government simply pays the same private sector health care providers that your insurance company currently does. Instead of 1,500 different plans and myriad for-profit providers, the government holds all the cards. And everyone is covered. That’ll help about 46 million U.S. citizens get in to see a doctor, with no co-pay. No deductible. A slight tax increase anchored by the richest 5 percent of Americans. It’s something like a level playing field, which means it’s probably way too good to be true.

—Stephen George