Tuesday, June 12, 2007

There is One Politician Telling the Truth about Health Care

Although our political landscape is littered with candidates who are ducking the issue, or speaking in platitudes, there is one courageous politician who is telling the truth about the need for health care reform in the United States, and I heard him speak on June 11, 2007.

Physician and former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber is the founder of The Archimedes Movement, which is committed to creating opportunities for meaningful engagement about health care reform. He gave the keynote address here in Bellingham, Washington, at a community forum sponsored by the Whatcom Alliance for Health Care Access, which works locally to help obtain access to needed health care in our community.

His message was that fundamental change is needed to fix America’s “broken” health-care system, and he made the case forcefully, and then outlined what needs to be done.

Kitzhaber is promoting legislation introduced in the Oregon legislature that would restructure his state’s health-care system to provide universal care. “The responsibility to fix the health-care system does not belong to someone on the other side of the country,” Kitzhaber said. “It belongs to us.”

Kitzhaber, who is a physician, focused on the broader problems in American health care, including the pending financial crisis that will peak after millions of retiring members of the baby boom generation will seek benefits.

He also spoke of the “coverage gap” in the current system — the estimated 50 million Americans who do not receive health benefits through work and don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. These uninsured individuals typically do not receive preventive care and then often end up later in emergency rooms, which adds huge unnecessary costs to the system that are shifted to those who do pay for health care, Kitzhaber noted. At the same time, many of these folks are working individuals who are taxed to pay for the health care provided to others by the federal government, who are on Medicaid or Medicare, in spite of the fact that they themselves cannot afford their own care.

“It’s a huge hidden tax that adds enormous costs,” Kitzhaber said. “It makes no sense as a business model and it makes no sense as social policy.”

Kitzhaber said there needs to be a serious discussion on the national level about fixing the system, and that time is running out. SB 27 introduced in Salem is a way to get the issue on the national stage, so that congress must address it. He pointed to Oregon’s 1989 attempt to gain authority over how it administers federal health-care funds as an example of a state forcing a national discussion on the issue. Information about the current bill is available at WeCanDoBetter.org.

Although much of the talk focused on the finances of health care, I was pleased that Dr. Kitzhaber pointed out that we will not solve the problem if we do not reform how health care is delivered. We must emphasize the parts of health care that we already know confer the most benefit, such as primary care, education, health screening and chronic disease management, while empowering people to make choices that fit with their own values. Currently, our "system" favors paying for the expensive and the technological care which is often at the end of life, while trying to save money by limiting peoples access to the most valuable benefits. “It makes no sense as a business model and it makes no sense as social policy.”

"The ability to fix the U.S. healthcare system does not belong to someone else. It belongs to us. If we're not willing to do it for ourselves we can do it for our children and grandchildren."


You can learn more and sign up to help at WeCanDoBetter.org.