By Dr. James C. Mitchiner
Ann Arbor News, Oct. 3, 2010
The announcement last month by the Census Bureau that the number of uninsured increased last year to a record 50.7 million individuals should come as no surprise to those who understand the uniquely American tradition of linking health insurance to employment.
Combined with the corresponding finding that the rate of employer-based insurance has decreased, the conclusion is obvious: in a declining economy, as unemployment rates increase and employer payrolls tighten, the number of people lacking health insurance goes up.
Why is this? I have never understood why health insurance must be associated with employment. Historically, I recognize how businesses’ response to FDR’s wartime wage and price controls lead to the situation we have now. But I fail to see how a model first applied in the 1940s should continue to operate in the 21st century. Other forms of insurance – car, home, boat, flood, and universal life insurance – are not linked to a job, so why should health insurance have this unique relationship?
Imagine a world where your health care coverage would not be predicated on what you did or where you worked, where you lived under a system that provided continual access to care as you moved from job to job or state to state, and guaranteed your health security even if you were laid off or terminated. Picture yourself in such a world where “choice” refers not to your choice of health insurer, but instead to the freedom to choose your own doctor and hospital, based on whatever criteria you and you alone deem to be personally relevant. And imagine a world where more than 95 percent of your contribution to health insurance was actually spent on health care, with no substantial contributions to a bloated and mindless bureaucracy.
The good news is that such a model exists. It is called a single-payer, Medicare-for-All program. It is a plan modeled on Medicare, a popular program that is universal, portable, affordable, non-profit, non-discriminatory, and administratively efficient. An expanded Medicare program would sever the link between employment and health insurance for all Americans, and use as its sole entry criteria nothing more than U.S. citizenship. Such a program would drastically reduce the number of uninsured, at a total cost much less than what we are paying now. And, under a single-payer system, private insurance firms would be used for simple administrative functions only, and not for decisions that place greedy corporate profits over an individual’s right to medical care.
And the bad news? The United States remains the only western democracy that does not have universal single-payer health insurance. For illogical reasons, we as a country continue to have blind faith in the ability of the private insurance industry to solve the dual problems of access to care and cost containment. If for-profit insurance has not fixed the problems with health care after over 60 years of existence, why would anyone believe it would happen now under the recently passed health care reform act, where private insurance continues to play a dominant role? Clearly, the only logical solution is to insure everyone, and the most efficient way to do that is through single-payer national health insurance.
Dr. James Mitchiner, an Ann Arbor physician, is the former president of the Washtenaw County Medical Society and a member of Physicians for a National Health Program.