Steamboat Springs We think of ourselves as a civilized society. We pay taxes that, in turn, pay to ensure all our citizens can - no matter what their income - drink uncontaminated water, educate their children, drive on a network of safe roads, and be protected by police and fire departments when necessary. Why is health care different? Why do we not accept the responsibility of ensuring that all citizens have basic affordable health care?
President Barack Obama, along with millions of Americans, believes that we must. His health care reform plan will guarantee choice, emphasize preventive care, reduce costs and cover pre-existing conditions. None of this will help, however, if it is not affordable for all citizens. This is where the "public option" comes in. The public option is a government-sponsored plan that will offer health care coverage for all at affordable rates because it won't have to provide generous profits for an insurance company.
And this is where all the hand-wringing begins. Critics of the public option worry that health insurance companies will not be able to compete with a government-sponsored plan. That's because until now, health insurance companies have been in business to satisfy their shareholders rather than to provide affordable health care to their policyholders. That is a standard business model but it is not a good prescription for covering all Americans with basic affordable health care.
As Jonathan Alter wrote in "Newsweek," insurers would be forced "to redraw their business models and accept lower profits." If the insurers still want to be in the picture, they will have to make changes. Everyone involved in this discussion must remember that the goal is to provide affordable health care for all Americans.
Other critics, most notably U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and columnist George Will, are convinced that government-sponsored health care will not be the high level of care that Americans deserve. They worry about lack of choice of doctors, long lines of people waiting for surgery, etc. I know Canadians and Britons who are quite happy with their plans. But in any case, if government-sponsored health care is as bad as the critics say it is, it will die a natural death. People and companies who like the health care plans they have can continue to use them; they need not give them up. But for those who, like my daughter and son-in-law, are paying more than $660 a month for a "catastrophic" health plan for a family of five with a $4,000 deductible, the public option sounds really good. They currently never meet their deductible, so on top of that monthly insurance premium, they struggle to pay for each doctor visit, strep throat test, ankle X-ray and every other medical need that an active family with young children incurs. By providing basic coverage at a reasonable price, a public plan would eliminate the need for such catastrophic policies.
Other critics say that it would be unacceptable to have a government bureaucrat interfering in decisions that should be made between doctor and patient. This is a non-starter. Health insurance companies and HMOs already are interfering in such decisions and sometimes even dictating procedures to doctors. Many of their employees are hired specifically to find ways to deny claims.
In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last Sunday, 76 percent of respondents voiced support for a public option. 76 percent! That is a lot of Americans. And yet, Sen. Graham announced unequivocally on ABC on Sunday that any health care plan that includes a public option would not pass the Senate. Why would our Senators ignore the wishes of 76 percent? Could it have anything to do with the huge contributions they have received from health insurance companies? According to an article in Consumer Watchdog last March, health insurers and drug manufacturers contributed $5.5 million to the top 10 Senate and House recipients since 2005 and $24,220,976 to the current members of Congress in the past two election cycles. Is it any wonder the wishes of 76 percent are being ignored?*
The public option is just that - an option. In order to fight effectively for it, our legislators need to be able to show that their constituents strongly favor this option. Please contact Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., today.
Lynn Abbott is a Steamboat Springs native and longtime resident. She has been a leading member of the Routt County Democratic Party for several years.
*March 09, 2009, ConsumerWatchdog.org: Health Insurers & Drug Companies Contributed $5.5 Million to Top 10 Senate and House Recipients Since 2005 Contact: Jerry Flanagan, 310-889-4912; or Carmen Balber, 202-629-3043.