Wednesday, July 29, 2009

EDITORIAL >>Congress must pass health reform

If you’re like most Americans, your mind is made up on what to do about health care: make it affordable and more available.

It took a while to get a response but finally, after being dragged kicking and screaming to the drawing board, six senators from the finance committee, not including Sen. Blanche Lincoln, are talking about how the government will pay for health-care reform.

They could start by having the insurance industry help. While many industries have declined, insurance companies continue to make money. Between 2000 and 2007, the largest insurance providers made almost $11 billion. They are now reporting increased profits even as the number of customers falls while unemployment rises. Those are profits made on the backs of the sickest Americans: children with cancer and leukemia, frail elderly and the disabled.

No other middle man in America is unregulated the way the health insurance industry has been since its creation in the 1930s.

Even used car salesmen have to respond to consumer protection boards and attorney generals if a customer complains. Other players in the health industry risk lawsuits when they fail to provide adequate care to patients or put them at increased risk of illness, including pharmaceutical businesses, hospitals and doctors. But insurance companies don’t.

During a press conference last week, President Obama at long last recognized the elephant in the room, most notably by calling the work he’s pushing Congress to do “health insurance reform.” Even while recognizing the problem, he was careful to not be overly critical. Instead, he blamed doctors, saying many now make decisions based on how much money they will make for a given procedure.

“I make a lot more money if I take this kid’s tonsils out,” Obama said in imitation of a doctor. He should have pointed out that insurance companies make those payment structures and therefore dictate how the medical industry operates.

To defend itself, the insurance industry has spent millions of dollars to launch an argument that a public plan would lead to rationed health care. They’ve given birth to a specter of government bureaucrats who would put a price tag on life if they were given the power.

But it’s insurance companies that already do just that based on how much they are willing to pay for care. Companies deny patients life-saving procedures and drugs if they are viewed as risks to the company and their profit margins. They now dictate who, where and how you will get your care.

A lot of obstetricians and other specialists have stopped taking insurance because of failure to reimburse them adequately.

Many families are forced to pay exorbitant out-of-pocket fees to avoid haggling with insurance companies during a time that should be worry-free.

The onus is on Congress to help reduce health-care expenses that have pushed more Americans into bankruptcy than any other cause. Sen. Lincoln has said every Arkansan should have access to insurance, but as the finance committee continues to debate health care in meetings she’s not attending, North Metro Medical Center’s emergency room will stay full of the uninsured, and middle-class taxpayers will keep subsidizing them.

—Aliya Feldman