Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Health Care Blues

Unless you've been living under a rock the past few weeks, you know that reforming health care is the big topic for the month of July in Washington. Both the president and Congress are offering up a variety of different proposals to reform the nation's health system, including a contentious debate over whether to provide a public health insurance alternative.

This centers on two things: number one, 45 million Americans (11 million of whom are children) don't have health insurance, and number two, 60% of personal bankruptcies in this country are due to unpaid medical bills. Put the two together, and you would conclude it's a lack of health insurance that is financially wiping out vast segments of our society.

But that may not be the case. What's astonishing, according to this Times piece, is that most of the people who lose everything due to medical calamities actually have some crude form of medical insurance at the time of their bankruptcy.

Health insurance is supposed to offer protection — both medically and financially. But as it turns out, an estimated three-quarters of people who are pushed into personal bankruptcy by medical problems actually had insurance when they got sick or were injured.

And so, even as Washington tries to cover the tens of millions of Americans without medical insurance, many health policy experts say simply giving everyone an insurance card will not be enough to fix what is wrong with the system.

“Underinsurance is the great hidden risk of the American health care system,” said Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor who has analyzed medical bankruptcies. “People do not realize they are one diagnosis away from financial collapse.”
If you do the math, this means half of all personal bankruptcies every year in the U.S. are caused by unpaid medical bills among people who had insurance. And when you file for bankruptcy, care to take a guess who pays off your debt?

Punishing people for getting sick is probably the most vile form of social control there is. If we don't go beyond reforming just the insurance end of health care in this debate, nothing is going to change for the millions of people who lose their life's work every year because of illness.

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