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AlterNet: Jim Hightower: How to Fix Our Health Care Mess

June 20, 2006

How messed up is America’s health care system? Consider the case of the Leavitts. Anne and her husband Dixie, both in their 70s, got frazzled trying to work their way through the maddening maze of George W’s new prescription drug program, which compels seniors to choose among 1,400 competing drug-insurance schemes offered by 80 corporations. Each plan in this baffling “marketplace” offers different coverage, is frustratingly complex and is filled with fine print. The Leavitts had to call on their son to help them select a company to cover their meds.

But — oops! — even with hands-on help, Anne and Dixie made a bad choice that almost cost them their entire medical coverage. They rushed to drop that plan and were lucky to find another at the last minute to avert a family disaster.

What makes the Leavitts’ story unique among the millions of seniors who’ve been similarly discombobulated by Bush’s convoluted prescription plan (including 15 million who’ve been left with no drug coverage) is that their helpful son is none other than Mike Leavitt. Yes, the head honcho of Bush’s Health and Human Services Department! One more twist: Dixie Leavitt made his fortune in the insurance business.

If someone who’s an insurance professional and is personally advised by the government’s top health official still gets flummoxed — that’s a clue that the Powers That Be have saddled us with a truly lousy program.

The health-industrial complex

There’s no legitimate excuse for this mess. A program to provide medicines for every single senior could and should be simpler and far less expensive than Bush’s $1.2 trillion scam. Medicare, with its extremely low overhead and an efficient payment system already in place, is the logical conduit for such a program. It could negotiate with drug makers on behalf of every senior to get low prices on all medicines, then pay pharmacists directly for the total cost of prescriptions they fill.

Instead, Bush and Congress put the new drug benefit in the hands of the corporate bureaucracies that separate us patients from our medical professionals. All seniors are on their own to purchase one of the confusing myriad of drug cards from HMOs and insurance companies. These middlemen then bill Medicare for whatever medications the seniors get and put no lid on the prices of the drugs.
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Still, if you insist that the United States simply must be No.1, it is true that ours is by far the most expensive health care system on the globe. Go, USA! In 2004, spending averaged $6,280 for each man, woman, and child in America — more than double the average ($2,307 per capita) spent in all other industrial countries.

Over 16 percent of our economy ($1.9 trillion last year) goes into our corporatized system — 50 percent more than Switzerland’s universal system, which ranks second in spending per person. Not only does the United States drastically outspend everyone else, but it does so while leaving tens of millions of Americans outside the system. In contrast, Canada puts only 10 percent of its economy into health care, Australia 9 percent, and England 7 percent, and these countries manage to provide care for every one of their people.

While we Americans pay much more, we get far less. The World Health Organization’s latest survey ranks the quality of U.S. health care at — cue the trumpets — 37th in the world. Ta-da! Not only is our system’s performance beneath Canada, Japan and all of Europe, but it’s also beneath such powerhouses as Malta, Colombia, Morocco, Chile and Dominica. We’re only one notch above Slovenia, for godssake!
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Why not now?

The American people overwhelmingly support a major, progressive shift from corporatized “care” to universal care. Recent polls show consistent agreement on the need for real action:

* Everyone has the right to quality, affordable care (90 percent) — Lake Research poll of U.S. Women, 12/05
* Average Americans spend too much on health care (65 percent); government spends too little (70 percent) — Pew poll, 3/06.
* Our current system has so much wrong with it that either “fundamental changes” are needed (56 percent) or we must “completely rebuild it” (34 percent) — CBS/New York Times poll, 1/06.
* Government should guarantee health coverage for every American “even if it means raising taxes” (65 percent) — Pew poll, 5/05. Likewise, 64 percent of doctors favor a single-payer health plan, according to a 2004 Harvard Medical School survey of Massachusetts physicians. Even corporate executives — from General Motors to Wal-Mart — are publicly wailing about the high cost and low coverage of America’s current system (though none are providing the leadership to put America on the right track to a national plan of universal coverage).

A single-payer system is the answer. An unusually strong editorial in March by the St. Louis Post Dispatch expressed the benefits succinctly: “Employers would no longer be saddled with health care. Workers would no longer worry about health care for themselves or their children. And we could toss the disgraceful private health insurance industry, with its wasteful bureaucracy and inscrutable coverage rules, into the dumpster.”

Many good grassroots groups are pushing this fundamentally moral issue into the elections of ’06, ’08 and beyond, confronting Republican lawmakers on their shameful fealty to corporate greed, and Democrats on their appalling wimpiness. We can achieve the goal of good-quality health care for all — and advance America toward the greatness of its democratic potential.

From The Hightower Lowdown, edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer, June 2006. Jim Hightower is the author of “Let’s Stop Beating Around the Bush” (Viking Press).

You can read the entire article at the link below:
AlterNet: EnviroHealth: How to Fix Our Health Care Mess

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