Excluding seasonal agricultural workers

Posted by on Friday, Jul 10, 2009

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Harvesting Justice

By Bruce Goldstein
July 10, 2009

Sen. Hagan (D-NC) introduced Amendment 200 for the health care reform bill being discussed in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, called the “Affordable Health Choices Act.”

Hagan’s amendment would exclude from the definition of “employees” any “temporary or seasonal agricultural workers . . . for the purposes of determining the size of an employer.” Agricultural employers of seasonal farmworkers would not be required to participate in the system because they would be considered to be too small. Seasonal farmworkers would be denied health care coverage.

Seasonal agricultural workers earn an average of $12,500 to $15,000 per year . They put food on our table by cultivating and harvesting fruits and vegetables, raising chickens, herding sheep, cutting flowers, and harvesting our Christmas trees. They work in the second or third most dangerous occupation. They cannot afford health insurance. It’s morally wrong — and it’s counterproductive economically — to exclude farmworkers from the plans for a reformed health care system.

http://www.harvestingjustice.org/

Everyone should have health care. Everyone.

Premium increases in non-profit health plans

Posted by on Thursday, Jul 9, 2009

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Health-plan costs soar for individuals

By Kyung M. Song
The Seattle Times
July 9, 2009

In what is becoming an annual ordeal for policyholders, Regence BlueShield is raising premiums for 135,000 individual health-plan members in Washington by an average 17 percent on Aug. 1.

It is the third consecutive year that the state’s largest provider of individual coverage has boosted rates by double digits. And it comes after two other insurers, Group Health Cooperative and LifeWise Health Plan of Washington, recently imposed similarly steep premium increases.

North Seattle resident Gail Petersen said having more choices won’t make health plans any more affordable. Petersen, 55, and her husband pay more than $1,400 a month to Regence to cover their family of five and will pay $300 more starting in August.

In 2008, Group Health rolled out eight products to join its lineup of a dozen individual health plans. They included high-deductible health savings accounts, which allow people to put aside up to $5,950 annually in pretax dollars — if they have that much upfront — to pay for medical expenses.

By catering to different population segments, Group Health in the past 15 months has nearly doubled its individual-plan members to 36,000. But those new customers are facing a 13 percent rise in premiums because Group Health underestimated anticipated medical claims, said Mike Foley, a spokesman for the co-op.

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/health/2009436261_regence09m0.html

Once Congress passes a mandate for individuals to purchase health plans, presumably non-profit Regence BlueShield, as the largest provider of individual plans in the state of Washington, would be a provider of those plans. Also, Group Health Cooperative is the co-op that has been proposed to serve as a model for the public option.

Group Health has been shifting more costs to patients through consumer-directed high deductible plans and HSAs, and still has a double digit hike in premiums. Some model.

Can anyone seriously state, with a straight face, that mandating purchase of these plans will somehow magically end the double digit increases in premiums for these plans?

The answer to this question is actually quite complex, but the fundamental truth is that the cost containment measures under consideration in Congress will have very little impact in slowing the escalation of health care costs.

All other nations have health care financing systems that are much more effective in containing costs and without leaving people out, as we do. One simple click on this link will demonstrate in a single image how the United States is an outlier (and will remain so without bona fide financing reform):

http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/08/us-health-spending-breaks-from-the-pack/

In this graph, note that Canada and the United States followed the same curve until Canada established its single payer system. Then look at what happened.

Can Medicaid fill the gap?

Posted by on Wednesday, Jul 8, 2009

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

To: Sen. Judd Gregg, Ranking Member, Senate Budget Committee

From: Douglas W. Elmendorf, Director

Congressional Budget Office
Letter
July 7, 2009

In response to your request, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has considered the likely effects on federal spending and health insurance coverage of adding a substantial expansion of eligibility for Medicaid to the Affordable Health Choices Act, a draft of which was recently released by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP).

CBO has not yet had time to produce a full estimate of the cost of incorporating any specific Medicaid expansion in the HELP committee’s legislation. However, our preliminary analysis indicates that such an expansion could increase federal spending for Medicaid by an amount that could vary in a broad range around $500 billion over 10 years. Along with that increase in federal spending would come a substantial increase in Medicaid enrollment, amounting to perhaps 15 million to 20 million people. Such an expansion of Medicaid would also have some impact on the number of people who obtain coverage from other sources (including employers). All told, the number of non-elderly people who would remain uninsured would probably decline to somewhere between 15 million and 20 million. (For comparison, CBO’s analysis of the draft legislation that was released by the HELP committee found that, absent any expansion of Medicaid or other change in the legislation, about 33 million people would ultimately remain uninsured if it were to be enacted.)

http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/104xx/doc10445/07-07-2009-ExpandingMedicaid.pdf

From the start it was recognized that insurance exchanges, even if they included a public option, could never provide affordable coverage for low-income individuals. The Medicaid program would have to be expanded to cover this more vulnerable population.

It was also recognized that, even with subsidies, there are many individuals who could not afford to purchase plans through an exchange yet have incomes above the thresholds that would qualify them for Medicaid.

That has led to the new definition of universal coverage as being “close to 95 percent.” This CBO analysis provides support for that view. Leaving only 15 to 20 million people without coverage has become one of the parameters that will define “success” in the reform efforts.

And costs? This Medicaid expansion can be accomplished for only half a trillion dollars (federal component), that is if it is agreed that the program will continue to be chronically underfunded. If it is eventually decided that Medicaid must cover actual health care costs, then add those costs to this half a trillion dollars plus to the funds already obligated for the 60 million people now covered by Medicaid. Once 75 to 80 million people are on Medicaid – over one-fourth of our population – adequate funding will be essential if there are to be enough willing providers to be there to give care when needed.

Keep in mind that all health care costs still must be met one way or another in a fragmented multi-payer system, but with the inevitability of inequitable cost shifting. This inequity potentially can have an adverse impact on the health and finances of tens of millions of Americans. However the total costs are much higher than they need to be because of the profound inefficiencies of this dysfunctional financing system which Congress has elected to protect and expand.

Under a single payer system – a reformed Medicare for all – everyone would be included automatically and without the projected cost overruns that are plaguing the current reform process. Those were the goals of reform, but they seem to have been chewed up in the legislative sausage machine of Congress.

A German comments on U.S. health care

Posted by on Tuesday, Jul 7, 2009

The following comments are in response to a recent Quote of the Day by Don McCanne about the broken, employer-based health insurance system in the United States.

By Diana Stritzel

I just wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your articles and feedback on what’s going on about health care in the U.S. I don’t remember how I found your list and subscribed to it, but I find it really useful to learn more about the system.

Being German by birth, I find it really awful what people here in the U.S. are being subjected to just to go and see a doctor. I’ve had people at my workplace telling me how horrible it must be that I don’t have the choice of doctor in my country of origin. I was like …What? I never had so many problems in any other country I’ve been in before.

The U.S. is the worst. (I’ve lived in United Kingdom, Italy, New Zealand and Australia.) My employer provides coverage, and not a bad one, as I’ve been told. Now, I’ve had nothing but trouble with the insurer (Aetna). I was on PPO plan before, but now I moved to my employer’s state (California) and I’m covered on Aetna’s HMO plan.

But for all plans I have to go online or call them first, and find a doctor which is in the network, so that Aetna covers it. In Europe I never had that problem, I can go to any doctor anywhere and I don’t need to ask or check with insurance first.

Then there’s the administrative effort required. Every time I go to a doctor, I have to fill out so much paperwork, and sign three statements that I will pay for all charges incurred in case my insurance doesn’t pay. As if that wouldn’t make you feel more miserable than you already are (seeking a doctor in the first place).

And after all that, I’ve still had bills coming to my house, which led me to call my insurance company and they told me I’ll have to pay these, because my doctor requested tests from a lab which is not in Aetna’s network. So now I have to be paranoid about each test the doctor wants to do, and ask the doctor to please use a lab which is covered by Aetna. Outrageous!

After my move to California I was unlucky enough to be in need of emergency room. They suggested I go for a follow-up in a couple of days. Since I hadn’t been to my “PCP” yet, and I live in San Diego, whereas Aetna send me a coverage card which stated that my PCP is in Los Angeles, when trying to change my PCP to one in San Diego I failed in three attempts (one online, and two by phone). Once I was in the doctor’s practice, they called to verify with Aetna that this was changed (because I only had the card which stated the L.A. doctor’s name), and Aetna’s employees said no. (I had been on the phone with them forever until they finally said yes, we’ve changed it.)

The doctor suggested I pay for the visit and claim it back, but I had learned from before (my PPO plan) that Aetna will find a way to never pay these back to me. So again I called them up and asked for changing my doctor. I was wondering why they added a doctor in L.A. in the first place as they had my correct address in San Diego.

Anyway, after subjecting me to lots of useless questions like “When are you planning to change your PCP again?” (which made me wanna cry…. I didn’t choose that doctor!), finally they said that they changed it, and I made them give verbal confirmation to the practice right away, so I could finally see a doctor.

I haven’t received any bills yet, but I’m wondering when they might come.

I think the system as a whole is really awful. Hard to see any light at all, with politicians taking the bribes from insurance companies and such statements as Obama’s below. [Editor’s note: the reference is to President Obama’s comment that moving to a single-payer system would be disruptive.] I don’t understand why Americans don’t fight more for health care, which is one of the most important things to have. The feeling of security that comes with a health care system like in the U.K. (where I studied and lived many years) is just not replaceable.

I for my part wish you all the best, and I do hope you will not stop fighting for your right to health care (yes, in my opinion it is a right which every human should have).

Thanks for your articles and the awareness you bring to this topic. I’m following Ralph Nader as well, and I do hope that despite all the ridiculing your media does to him, that maybe one day someone will listen and change the system. I hope I’ll see the day, I know for sure that I won’t be living in U.S. by then though.

Thanks and keep going!

The hijacking of health reform

Posted by on Tuesday, Jul 7, 2009

Originally published in The Berkshire Eagle

Headlines in the Berkshire Eagle recently proclaimed that Berkshire Health Systems (BHS) is cutting the equivalent of 65 full-time jobs, and will lose $3 million this year. This is neither good for employment nor for the health of our population in the Berkshires. The culprits are the cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, the programs that cover 70 percent of the BHS population.

BHS president David Phelps reports that financial problems at Berkshire Medical Center have been aggravated by Massachusetts health care reform. While more patients have enrolled in insurance plans, the reimbursements for these plans are similar to Medicaid rates, which don’t actually cover the cost of care.

As the major non-profit provider of health care for the Berkshire community suffers financially, the for-profit insurance industry, (which only administers the funds, and provides no actual health care services), is raking in the money. In the current economic and health care crisis, United Health Group, America’s largest health insurance company, enjoyed an increase of 8 percent in revenues for the first quarter of 2009, with a net profit of $984 million. There is something wrong when the administrators of the health care funds are making exorbitant profits, while the providers of the health care services are struggling to remain solvent.

The private for-profit insurance industry diverts roughly $400 billion/year from medical services. In addition, the Senate Commerce Committee recently released a staff report about how health insurers have forced consumers to pay billions of dollars in medical bills that the insurers should have paid themselves.

Will the current health care reform being formulated in Washington address these issues? Not a chance, even if President Obama gets a public plan option into the reform legislation. Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a founder of the 16,000-member Physicians for a National Health Program, stated in her testimony to Congress: “Insurers compete by not paying for care: by denying payment and shifting costs onto patients or other payers. These bad behaviors confer a decisive competitive advantage. A public plan option would either emulate them — becoming a clone of private insurance — or go under. A kinder, gentler public plan option would quickly fail in the marketplace, saddled with the sickest, most expensive patients, whose high costs would drive premiums to uncompetitive levels.”

In addition, the overhead for a public plan option would be higher than for Medicare, which automatically enrolls seniors at 65, deducts premiums from Social Security checks, and does no marketing. The administrative costs for the whole health care system would remain astronomical, as health care providers would continue to struggle with mountains of paperwork and denials of payment from multiple insurance companies. A public plan option would not curb the escalating costs of new technology, and would not address variability in the quality of care.

The only way to attain universal health care coverage, while containing escalating health care costs and standardizing quality of care, is to eliminate the insurance companies, and establish a single-payer “Improved Medicare for All” program. Hospitals, doctors and other providers must be adequately reimbursed for their medical services. This would be possible if the profiteering and waste of the health insurance industry were eliminated, and those health care dollars went to the actual provision of medical care. And hospitals could be paid like fire departments, with a single monthly check and little billing. There is federal legislation for a national health program in both houses of Congress, John Conyers bill, HR 676, and Bernie Sanders bill in the Senate, S.703.

Last year a survey of doctors showed that 59 percent support a national health plan, up from 49 percent in 2002. (Only one in five doctors are in the American Medical Association, which opposes a national health plan). So why is single-payer health care reform “off the table”‘ as Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, said, before he threw eight single-payer advocates, including several doctors, out of a “public roundtable discussion” and had them arrested. Could it be related to the more than $1 million in donations Baucus received from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries in the 2008 election year cycle?

Wendell Potter, a former health insurance industry insider has this to say, “. . . big for-profit insurers have high-jacked our health care system and turned it into a giant ATM for Wall Street investors, and . . . the industry is using its massive wealth and influence to determine what is (and is not) included in the health reform legislation members of Congress are now writing.”

What is going on in Washington right now is not in the best interests of patients, or the doctors and hospitals that serve them. Patients have no lobbyists speaking for their interests in Congress. Most doctors do not want the AMA to speak for them. Contact your congressmen and ask them to sponsor HR 676 and Bernie Sander’s bill. (On his Web site, Sanders also has an online petition you can sign and pass along to your friends).

Pay-go that builds rather than destroys

Posted by on Tuesday, Jul 7, 2009

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

A pay-go option for health-care reform

By John Geyman
The Seattle Times
July 6, 2009

As Congress recessed for the July Fourth holiday, the debate over health-care reform was reaching a fever pitch. Now the top domestic issue for the Obama administration, the biggest questions are how much a reform bill will cost and how to pay for it, quite aside from how effective a “reform package” will be.

Skyrocketing costs that are out of control are the hallmark of our present system. Yet legislators have already acceded to pressures and dollars from stakeholders in the present system (within which costs are revenue) and are only considering options that “build on the present system.”

After months of work, legislative committees in Congress have brought forth drafts of proposals that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is starting to score in terms of cost and effectiveness. As expected, the costs of these incremental proposals are high — the first number of $1.6 trillion over 10 years (while still leaving 36 million Americans uninsured) sent these committees back to the drawing board. At the moment, leading Senate Democrats are hailing $1 trillion over 10 years as potentially doable.

After presiding over huge deficits during their eight years in power, Republicans are now demanding “pay as you go” (pay-go) policies. Together with Blue Dog Democrats, they are threatening to act as spoilers of any health-care-reform bill on its price tag alone.

Given the dimensions of these difficult economic times — including a $1.8 trillion deficit for 2009, $5 trillion in new federal debt over this year and next, and rising unemployment — pay-go makes good sense. And the president is making the case that his health-care plan must pay for itself.

Conventional “wisdom” (as generated by the mainstream corporate media) says that any health-care reform will cost a lot, and that there is no pay-go option. But there is.

Single-payer financing (public financing coupled with a private delivery system, a reformed “Medicare for All”), as embodied in Rep. John Conyers’ bill (HR 676 in the House) with its 83 co-sponsors, will yield savings of some $400 billion a year. That’s enough to assure universal coverage for all Americans while eliminating all co-pays and deductibles — the ultimate pay-go. Single-payer will give us far more efficient, affordable, effective and reliable health care than our present multipayer system. Health insurers have known for years that they can’t compete on a level playing field with single-payer, and have only been surviving by favorable tax policies and other subsidies from the government.

This recent testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation by Wendell Potter, former head of corporate communications at Cigna, says it all: “I know from personal experience that members of Congress and the public have good reason to question the honesty and trustworthiness of the insurance industry. Insurers make promises they have no intention of keeping, they flout regulations designed to protect consumers, and they make it nearly impossible to understand — or even to obtain — information we need.”

Many studies over the past two decades, including those by the CBO, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, have concluded that single-payer can assure universal coverage and still save money. HR 676 needs to be brought out of the closet and put on the table for CBO scoring against other options being considered in Congress, all of which cost much more and fail to provide universal coverage.

President Obama has brought forward the concept of audacity of hope. Is it too audacious now to hope that the legislators we elect to Congress can see beyond their campaign contributions and the lobbying efforts by corporate stakeholders to require that single-payer be scored?

(Dr. John Geyman is professor emeritus of Family Medicine at the University of Washington, past president of Physicians for a National Health Program, and a member of the Institute of Medicine.)

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2009424809_guest07geyman.html

As expected, Congress ran into problems when they tried to figure out how to pay for health care reform. They stubbornly adhered to the principle that reform must be built on our dysfunctional system of profitable private plans for the healthy and taxpayer-financed public programs for the sick, even though numerous studies have shown that this is the most expensive model of reform.

Before the process began it was already understood that health care has now become so expensive that a health plan with adequate benefits would require massive public subsidies to make it affordable for average-income individuals and families. It is the size of the subsidies that would be required for them to work that would be the budget busters. Now that they are at the point that decisions must be made, they are relying on a process analogous to innovation in the marketplace, shunning their obligation to be responsible public stewards.

For the average American, they are establishing a standard of a bottom-tier package of benefits (a bizarre concept that requires greater out-of-pocket spending for those needing health care than that required of the wealthy with their higher-tiered plans). They are paring back the income eligibility levels such that there would be no subsidy above 300 percent of the poverty level ($32,500 for an individual or $66,000 for a family of four). These numbers simply do not make health care affordable for middle-income Americans when you consider that the Milliman Medical Index is now $16,771 (the average cost of family health care for the healthier sector covered by employer-sponsore plans). That doesn’t even count the taxes that middle-income Americans pay to support the massive government spending on health care programs.

Congress’s “market innovation” for pay-go is to fully fund the waste built into the private insurance model of health care financing, and pay for it out of the pockets of middle Americans who happen to need health care – defeating the very purpose of health care reform.

John Geyman is right. Single payer financing, a reformed Medicare for all, is precisely the pay-go solution that Congress desperately needs if reform is to accomplish the goal of making health care affordable for all. All we need is for President Obama to meet with Baucus, Kennedy, Dodd, Waxman, Reid, Pelosi and a few others to see who is going to give Karen Ignagni the bad news – bad news for her and her industry, but great news for America.

Insurance disruptions due to spousal Medicare transitions

Posted by on Monday, Jul 6, 2009

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Insurance Disruption due to Spousal Medicare Transitions: Implications for Access to Care and Health Care Utilization for Women Approaching Age 65

By Jessica R. Schumacher, Maureen A. Smith, Jinn-Ing Liou, Nancy Pandhi
HSR
June 2009

Objective: To assess whether a husband’s Medicare transition leads to insurance disruptions for his wife that impact her perceived access to care, health care utilization, or health status.

Principal Findings: After adjustment, women who experienced an insurance disruption due to their husband’s Medicare transition had a greater probability of experiencing a change in usual clinic/provider (71 percent), delaying filling or taking fewer medications than prescribed because of cost (75 percent), going to the emergency room (52 percent), and had lower average mental health scores than women who did not experience an insurance disruption.

Conclusions: Despite consistent insurance coverage, the insurance disruption that accompanies a spouse’s Medicare transition has adverse access and health care utilization consequences for women.

http://www.hsr.org/hsr/abstract.jsp?aid=44347877138

Most individuals experience a sense of relief on turning 65 because they know that they have the security of being covered by Medicare for the remainder of their lives. But that relief is often tempered by concerns over the transitional problem of having a wife who is not yet 65, but who experiences a disruption in her insurance because she had been covered as a dependent on her husband’s plan. This study demonstrates that such disruptions can have adverse consequences for health care.

How would the current reform proposals address this problem? Likely she would be mandated to purchase an individual plan through the insurance exchange, probably at a higher premium since plans would be allowed to use age as a factor in setting rates. This could be quite expensive just at a time that the couple is trying to pull together their financial plans for their retirement years. Also since almost all private health plans assess financial penalties for failure to use their contracted providers, she could lose the choice of continuing to use her current health care professionals. What would happen if she has a serious medical problem and has already initiated a complicated medical regimen (e.g., cancer chemotherapy, radiation, and staged surgery)?

Should Congress include in the reform legislation a measure that would cover the spouse under Medicare once the eligible individual turns 65? If so, should the taxpayers fund that coverage, even if the spouse is 32? If, instead, a premium is to be paid, would it be based on the actuarial value of a risk pool composed of high-cost retirees and individuals with long-term disabilities (i.e., the current Medicare program)? If the husband is leaving an employer-sponsored plan, would the former employer be required to continue the spouse’s coverage to avoid transitional disruptions? If so, who pays and how much?

We will always face these issues and many more as long as Congress insists that we are each mandated to finance our health care through our fragmented, dysfunctional, multi-payer insurance system.

All we really need to do is fix Medicare, and then make enrollment automatic for everyone. But then that would break the bond of trust that President Obama and the members of Congress have established with Karen Ignagni. That seems to be a much stronger bond than they have with the other 306 million of us.

NHIS numbers, and building on what works

Posted by on Thursday, Jul 2, 2009

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Town Hall on Health Care

President Obama
The White House
July 1, 2009

Here’s the problem, is that the way our health care system evolved in the United States, it evolved based on employers providing health insurance to their employees through private insurers. And so that’s still the way that the vast majority of you get your insurance. And for us to transition completely from an employer-based system of private insurance to a single-payer system could be hugely disruptive. And my attitude has been that we should be able to find a way to create a uniquely American solution to this problem that controls costs but preserves the innovation that is introduced in part with a free market system.

We want to build on what works about the system and fix what’s broken about the system.

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-of-the-President-in-an-Online-Town-Hall-on-Health-Care-Reform/

And…

Health Insurance Coverage: Early Release of Estimates from the National Health Interview Survey, 2008

by Robin A. Cohen, Ph.D. and Michael E. Martinez, M.P.H., M.H.S.A.
CDC

In 2008, 60.2% of unemployed adults aged 18-64 years and 22.2% of employed adults in this age group had been uninsured for at least part of the past year.

Among persons under age 65 with private health insurance, 17% with employer-based coverage were enrolled in a HDHP, compared with almost 45% of those with a private plan that was directly purchased or obtained through means other than an employer.

http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/earlyrelease/insur200906.pdf

Everywhere you turn those rejecting single payer, including President Obama, say that we want to build on what works and fix what’s broken. They say that what works is our employer-sponsored system of coverage. But does it?

Employer-sponsored plans fail to cover about one-fifth of the workforce. Of those who are covered many have been switched to high-deductible health plans (HDHP), a form of inadequate underinsurance that has been more characteristic of the individual insurance market.

Although the employer-sponsored system falls short for far too many of us, one of the most serious deficiencies is that it is dependent on employment. Well, of course. But that means that three-fifths of the unemployed remain without coverage. And of those insured who do not receive their coverage through their work, 45% have HDHP underinsurance products.

This is really a lousy insurance infrastructure that we are trying to prop up. And nobody in Washington is considering seriously the massive amount of tax subsidies that would be required to help everyone purchase plans with adequate benefits. Establishing an insurance exchange for employers and individuals is of little help if the subsidies won’t fill the gap of affordability. But adequate subsidies are off the table because they are budget busters.

How about dumping what’s broken, and building on a system that works – Medicare.

I just returned from the annual conference of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, where the link between medical bankruptcy and homelessness was made more clear than ever.

Which raises the question: Will the health reform we get end the “Only in America” phenomenon of medical bankruptcy? Just asking….

I am not usually the one to write about individual horror stories.  I will have my usual statistics and facts later in this diary. But one speaker’s story summed up so much of what is wrong Only in America.

Let me tell you the story of Joe Benson:

Mr. Joseph Benson (.pdf) is from Houston, Texas. When I met him for the first time last Wednesday he was wearing cowboy gear including the hat, which covered his long braided hair. He had a huge smile on his face and is a magnetic speaker; here is the story he told us: He was the first in his family to go to and complete college. After his BA, he went on and got professional chef’s training, and worked his way up in that industry, working in various restaurants and becoming a head chef. He saved money, moved back to Houston to help care of his parents and start his own family.  He built up a custom catering business, and was now the boss, employing 25 other people.

He had a wife and two children, and was putting money away for their college funds.  He had health insurance and auto insurance and his own home.

Surely this was the living embodiment of the “Only in America” all-American dream.

However, one night, on the way home from a catering job, he had an automobile accident, running head on into a commercial flatbed truck. The other truck was parked and loading scrap from a junk yard, and was jutting out into the road without it lights or blinkers on.

He survived but was in the hospital for almost a year.

Did I mention that when I met him, in addition to the cowboy outfit and smile, he was in a wheelchair with no legs, both amputated high above the knee?

The medical bills quickly blew past what his insurance would cover.  The owner and driver of the other truck did not have insurance, like 10-20% of vehicle owners despite the mandate to buy auto insurance, so Mr. Benson and his insurance company were unable to go after that source.

He lost his business.
His employees lost their jobs (and presumably their families suffered).
He and his family lost their house.
He and his family lost the kids college fund.
He lost his family.

When he was finally discharged from the hospital, it was to the street.

I’d probably would have just killed myself.
He survived but started drinking. A lot. And cocaine.
Note that in this instance it was the homelessness first, that then led to the drinking and drugs; not the other way around.

Eventually, he wound up in a shelter, and eventually he was able to put his professional chef skills to work in the “soup kitchen.”  From that he has worked his way back to sobriety, fulltime employment and housing.

Medical Bankruptcy:

Need I point out this is but an extreme (or not so extreme) example of the phenomenon of medical bankruptcy, despite having both a job and health insurance when he was injured.

Will our health care reform end the “Only in America” phenomenon of medical bankruptcy? In America:

  1. Illness and medical bills were linked to at least 62.1% of all personal bankruptcies in 2007. Based on the current bankruptcy filing rate, medical bankruptcies will total 866,000 and involve 2.346 million Americans this year – about one person every 15 seconds.
  2. Most medically bankrupt families were middle class before they suffered financial setbacks. 60.3% of them had attended college and 66.4% had owned a home; 20% of families included a military veteran or active-duty soldier.
  3. 78% of the individuals whose illness led to bankruptcy had health insurance at the onset of the bankrupting illness; 60% had private insurance.
  4. 69% of debtor families had coverage at the time of their bankruptcy filing; 60% of families had continuous coverage.

Surprise, medical bankruptcy is also linked to losing your home, and to homelessness. Duh.

Homelessness in America:

Many factors put people and families at risk of homelessness. Systemic issues of unemployment, low wages, expensive housing, lack of health insurance and racial discrimination combine with common personal issues such as domestic violence, abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and serious mental and physical illnesses to create this persistent social problem.

But two trends are largely responsible for the rise in homelessness over the past 25 years: a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty. Homelessness in America is bigger and broader than many realize:

  1. Number of Homeless Persons in U.S. Annually: 3.5 million.
  2. Number of Homeless Persons in U.S. Nightly: 842,000.
  3. About 15 million of us experience homelessness at least once in our lifetime.
  4. 39% of the homeless are under the age 18: 1.35 million children per year and 200,000 on any given night.
  5. 23% of all homeless people were members of families with children
  6. 400,000 veterans are homeless per year, 200,000 on any given night.
  7. The role of mental illness and substance use is less than you may assume: Approximately 16% of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness; 30% currently addicted to alcohol or drugs.  The cliché is that the closing of mental hospitals turned out many crazy people onto the streets. That is in fact a smaller and often over-emphasized part of the problem.
  8. The bigger part of the problem is stagnant income and less affordable housing.  The main cure for homelessness is affordable homes. 9 million low-income renter households nationwide pay more than half of their income for housing. In no community in the U.S. today can someone who gets a fulltime job at the minimum wage reasonably expect to find a modest rental unit he or she can afford.

And of course our current foreclosure crisis is also linked to increased homelessness.

The National Health Care for the Homeless Council endorses single payer and HR-676 for a reason. They are on the frontlines of how our health care “system” really works. Single payer — with automatic enrollment, everybody-in and nobody-out, and elimination of premiums, copayments and deductibles — assures that there is no more medical bankruptcy and that everybody regardless of circumstance really is covered. And single payer controls total costs to the country and for individuals.

Will the health reform we get in 2009 do that?
How do we get from here to there?

Does US Chamber soft talk hide their agenda?

Posted by on Wednesday, Jul 1, 2009

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Checking In With James Gelfand, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

By Jenny Gold
Kaiser Health News
July 1, 2009

The Chamber of Commerce is not mincing words. The senior manager of health policy for the Chamber, James P. Gelfand, says: “The problem is instead of focusing on the 90% of issues that everyone can agree on, we’re getting stuck on the 10% ideological, uncompromisable, unworkable provisions… like creating a government-run insurance plan, forcing employers to provide health insurance. That’s the kind of stuff that reads like a poison pill.”

Q: In congressional testimony, the Chamber’s senior vice president Randel Johnson said the [employer mandate] pay-or-play proposal “holds a Sword of Damocles over the necks of America’s job creators.” Do you believe it represents that kind of threat?

A: You [have to] pare this down to the simplest form — what does this employer mandate do? It makes people who don’t make a lot of money worth less to their employers. Say to yourself, I want to hire someone. I want them to do a simple task. It’s probably worth about $7 an hour. And then you realize, oh wait, because of a new law, I’m going to have to provide gold-plated health insurance. So instead of $7 an hour, it’s going to be more like $20 an hour. Let me tell you something, that person is not getting a job. So we’re just trying to make Congress understand this is a bad, bad policy. It’s gonna hurt the people they want to help.

Q: Many people say the plans on the table right now help lower income people the most. Why does the employer mandate hurt those people who are unable to get insurance?

A: Let’s look at the plan as a whole and what it’s going to do for people who don’t make a whole lot of money. If they’re lucky enough to keep their jobs, which many of them will not be — in fact, a model developed by the president’s own chair of the Council of Economic Advisers found that 4.7 million jobs would be lost based on this employer mandate — well, their benefits are going to be taxed. We’re going to tax them when they buy Coca-Cola. We’re gonna tax them when they buy alcohol. We’re going to force them, if they have a small health plan that they can afford and that appeals to them, to buy a big, rich, expensive health plan. Yeah, I think they’re getting the shaft here.

Q: So far, advertising on health care has been fairly restrained. At what point is it time to ramp up opposition? And what might it look like?

A: You don’t start a battle with nuclear weapons. First thing we’re going to do is try to work inside the system, try to work especially with Sen. Baucus to fix this thing. We don’t want to launch nukes. We don’t want to have a war. We want to support legislation. What will happen at the end of the day? Will Charlie Rangel work with us? I don’t know. I can tell you that at the hearing, he specifically, clearly said, we need the Chamber to get this done. He’s right. And I think as Congress slowly comes to the realization, oh wait, we can’t jam this down America’s throat, we can’t roll employers, we can’t roll the U.S. Chamber, I think the process is going to improve, and hopefully we won’t have to do any of these war tactics of buying air time and stuff like that. Just keep in mind, though, that we could if we had to. We have a massive grassroots network. We put out one e-mail asking people to write letters to Congress about the employer mandate and about the public plan, and we generate somewhere around 50,000 letters to Congress. So I think Congress is realizing that it’s gonna be trouble if they try to roll us.

We really do need reform, and I’m sorry that things have gotten to the point where we’re having to beat up on members of Congress who are proposing wacky schemes instead of pragmatic legislation.

http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/Checking-In-With/Gelfand.aspx

Wal-Mart, SEIU, CAP letter to President Obama:
http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/Daily-Reports/2009/June/30/~/media/Images/KHN%20Features/2009/June/30/CAPwalmartSEIU.ashx

“So I think Congress is realizing that it’s gonna be trouble if they try to roll us,” and “I’m sorry that things have gotten to the point where we’re having to beat up on members of Congress.” Was this guy nurtured on “The Sopranos,” or is he the real thing?

Regardless, are the owners of America’s businesses really as heartless as this jerk implies? Do they really believe that their workers would be “getting the shaft” by having health insurance with adequate benefits?

Even Wal-Mart can’t stomach this anymore. In a letter to President Obama yesterday, they stated, “We are for shared responsibility. Not every business can make the same contribution, but everyone must make some contribution. We are for an employer mandate which is fair and broad in its coverage, but any alternative to an employer mandate should not create barriers to hiring entry level employees. We look forward to working with the Administration and Congress to develop a requirement that is both sensible and equitable.”

Employer-mandated insurance is a primitive, inefficient and inequitable method of financing health care. Maybe Wal-Mart and the other business interests are ready to consider a model that is fair for all, efficient, and really does ensure that everyone has affordable access to health care. And if they walk away from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, they will find advocates that can show them that they don’t even have to break any kneecaps to achieve that.

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