By Monisha Bhatia, Margaret Axelrod, Emily Holmes, Mitchell Hayes and Connor Beebout
The Tennessean, Oct. 19, 2015
Just over a year ago, Sharon, a fast food worker from Middle Tennessee, walked into the Vanderbilt emergency department in the worst pain of her life.
Stones had formed in her gallbladder. Fortunately, this common and excruciatingly painful condition can be easily treated with surgery. Sharon, however, did not have health insurance and could not afford the surgery.
A few weeks ago, Sharon reappeared in the emergency department with worsening pain and vomiting. This time, her doctors found cancer in her gallbladder that had spread to her stomach and liver. There is no cure for her cancer.
Untreated gallstones are a major risk factor for this type of cancer. If Sharon had insurance and could afford the surgery, removing her gallbladder would have saved her life.
Sadly, Sharon’s story is in no way unique.
Sharon is one of 90,000 Americans who will die this year because she does not have access to affordable health care. That so many Americans die unnecessarily is a profound failure to our fellow citizens.
Despite the Affordable Care Act, 33 million Americans, including 750,000 Tennesseans, remain uninsured. Over 30 percent of the uninsured in Tennessee would be covered were it not for the senseless refusal to expand Medicaid.
Even people with health insurance often face crippling medical expenses. In December 2014, almost half of Americans reported that acquiring basic medical care was a significant financial hardship — a 10 percent increase over the previous year. Health care is the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in this country, and 70 percent of those with medical debt have health insurance.
These outrageous costs and preventable deaths are not a problem in other developed countries. Out of 16 industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks first in cost and last in medically preventable deaths — 68 percent higher than the best-performing countries.
As medical students, we understand that we cannot protect our patients from illness with the power of medical science alone. We strongly believe that the only sustainable way to save health care from itself would be to expand Medicare to all Americans.
In a Medicare-for-all system, every citizen would automatically receive health care coverage regardless of income. No American would ever need to forgo treatment because they could not afford the exorbitant costs of modern medicine.
More than half of physicians support Medicare-for-all. Economists and politicians understand that a Medicare-for-all system is the only way to control costs in the long run while providing quality medical care to every American.
Expanding Medicare would actually reduce health care spending. A Medicare-for-all insurance program would create a streamlined nonprofit system with reduced overhead, no marketing expenses and reduced drug costs through increased purchasing power. Together these effects would reduce health care spending by up to $500 billion per year. Under a Medicare-for-all system, 95 percent of Americans would pay less than they currently do for health care.
By expanding Medicare, tens of millions of ordinary Americans would gain access to quality, affordable health care, and not a single dollar would be added to the deficit.
Students from six universities in Tennessee and Kentucky (UT-Memphis, Louisville, Vanderbilt, East Tennessee State, DeBusk, and Meharry) are reaching out to their communities to bring attention to the problems and the future of American healthcare.
As physicians-in-training we understand that it is not enough to provide the best care possible to our patients. Our experiences with people like Sharon remind us that health reform is not behind us. It is a necessary part of our future.
Without significant policy changes, the fundamental problems of our health care system will never be solved. HR 676, the Expanded & Improved Medicare for All Act, would provide these changes. Despite 63 cosponsors and considerable public support, this bill remains stalled in Congress.
Expanding Medicare to every American would ensure that we never again have to witness anyone struggle like Sharon.
We are at a critical moment in the history of American health care. Costs continue to skyrocket, and Americans continue to suffer.
There is no better time to act.
Monisha Bhatia, Margaret Axelrod, Emily Holmes, Mitchell Hayes and Connor Beebout are members of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Chapter of Students for a National Health Program and Meharry Medical College Chapter of Students for a National Health Program.