Also in Health and Wellness
Penis Cancer: My Very Private Hell
The Autoimmune Epidemic: Bodies Gone Haywire in a World Out of Balance
Donna Jackson Nakazawa
A major problem -- if not the major problem -- for many people living in the U.S. is the difficulty of accessing and paying for medical care when they are sick. For this reason, candidates in the presidential primaries of 2008 -- the Democrats more often than the Republicans -- have been recounting stories about the health-related tragedies they have encountered in meetings with ordinary people around the country (an exercise conducted in the U.S. every four years, at presidential election time). These stories tell of the enormous difficulties and suffering faced by many people in their attempts to get the medical care they need. I have been around long enough -- I was senior health advisor to Jesse Jackson in the Democratic primaries of 1984 and 1988 -- to know how frequently Democratic candidates, over the years, have referred to such cases. The only things that change are the names and faces in these human tragedies. Otherwise, the stories, year after year, are almost the same.
In the Democratic Party primaries of 1988, for example, candidate Michael Dukakis talked about a young single mother who had two jobs and still could not afford medical insurance for herself and her children. In 1992, Bill Clinton did the same, changing the story only slightly. This time it was the case of a woman with diabetes who could not get health insurance because of her chronic condition. And now, in the 2008 primaries, Hillary Rodham Clinton (whom I worked with on the White House Health Care Reform Task Force in 1993) describes a similar case. This time it is a single woman, with two daughters, who cannot pay her medical bills because her congenital heart defect makes it impossible for her to get medical insurance coverage. And Barack Obama describes similar cases, with the eloquence that characterizes all of his speeches. He frequently refers to his own mother, who had cancer and had to worry not only about her illness but about paying her medical bills.
All these cases are tragic and are representative of a situation faced by millions of people in the U.S. every year. But, I am afraid that unless the winning Democratic candidate, once elected president (and I hope he or she will be), develops a more comprehensive health care proposal than any of those put forward in the primaries so far, we will see the same situation continue. Democratic candidates in the 2012 primaries, and in the 2016 primaries, will still be referring to single mothers with chronic health conditions who cannot pay their medical bills. The proposals put forward by Obama and Clinton underestimate the gravity of the problem in the U.S. medical care sector. The situation is bad and is getting worse: the number of people who are uninsured and underinsured has been growing since 1978.
Let's start with the uninsured, those people who do not have any form of health benefits coverage. There were 21 million uninsured people in the U.S. in 1972. By 2006, that number had more than doubled to 47 million. And this increase has been independent of economic cycles. The number of uninsured grew by 3.4 million from 2004 to 2006, even as a resurgent economy raised incomes and lowered poverty rates. Meanwhile, during those years, the Democratic Party establishment distanced itself from any commitment to resolving these problems. Even though the 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992 Democratic Party platforms included calls for health care benefits coverage for everyone (what is usually referred to as "universal health care"), that call was usually made without much conviction. In the primaries of 1988, when I was involved in preparing the Democratic platform, Dukakis (the winner of the primaries) resisted including universal health care in the party platform. He was afraid of being perceived as "too radical." He had to accept it, however, because Jesse Jackson agreed to support Dukakis (Jackson had 40 percent of the Democratic delegates at the Atlanta convention) only if the platform included this call for universal care.
Then, in 1992, Bill Clinton (who borrowed extensively from Jackson's 1988 proposals) put the call for universal health care at the center of his program. But, once president, his closeness to Wall Street and his intellectual dependence on Robert Rubin of Wall Street (who became his Secretary of the Treasury) made him leery of antagonizing the insurance industry. It was President Clinton's unwillingness to confront the insurance companies that led to his failure to honor his commitment to work toward a universal health care program (see my article "Why HillaryCare Failed," Counterpunch, November 12, 2007). The type of reform President Clinton called for was a health insurance based model called "managed care," in which insurance companies remain at the center of health care. An alternative approach could have been to establish a publicly funded health care program (which was favored by the majority of the population) that would cover everyone, providing medical care as an entitlement for all citizens and residents. This could have been achieved, such as by expanding the federal Medicare program to cover everyone. To do so, however, would have required neutralizing the enormous power of the insurance companies with a massive mobilization of the population against them and in favor of a comprehensive and universal health care program.
Dr. Vicente Navarro is Professor of Health Policy, Public Policy, and Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. He has written extensively on economics, health, and social policy, and has been advisor to many governments and international agencies. The views expressed in this article are his own, but are shared by millions across the United States.