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Conservatives' Dangerous Plan for Health Care

Instead of working to guarantee health care for everyone, conservatives are pushing for a policy that will deprive people of coverage.
 
 
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The global financial crash of the past few weeks has hammered home what should be common sense: A free market needs reasonable rules that safeguard the public interest. When you unshackle corporations and put the cops who would police them in handcuffs, ultimately everyone loses in the ensuing chaos.

As our Tuesday, October 14 op-ed ad in The New York Times points out, despite their spectacular "free market" economic failure, conservatives are still trying to use that recipe for disaster to reform an already failing health-care system.

Our ad points out that 116 million Americans are either uninsured, underinsured, or financially vulnerable to unexpected medical costs -- now the No. 1 cause of family bankruptcies. Those who have insurance are paying higher costs for policies that often have gaping holes in coverage. And insurance companies flat-out refuse to sell coverage to those already sick. And businesses, large and small, are burdened with rising costs.

The unraveling in health care now is so obvious that politicians of every persuasion have to pretend to have solutions. But conservatives have taken their ideas off the shelf of right-wing think tanks. Instead of working to guarantee health care for those without insurance, they want to tax the health benefits of the 160 million people who get insurance on the job -- even though they acknowledge this would gradually dismantle the employer-based health care system. Twenty million people would lose coverage pretty quickly, according to the EPI Policy Center and other experts.

These conservatives actually believe that group health insurance, provided by employers, encourages people to use too much medical care, driving up costs. Instead, they want all of us to buy insurance policies directly from private insurance companies. And they believe in this theory so strongly, they would also let those companies sell policies across state lines, effectively wiping out the minimal state regulations which require companies to do things like cover pregnancies and certain tests -- or, in the best states, to cover people with pre-existing conditions.

Imagine a health-care system in which businesses decide to opt out of providing policies for their employees. Workers would instead search for policies in an environment in which costs aren't constrained by the bargaining power of employers and in which insurance companies would do just what banks have done -- set up shop in the states that would allow them to operate with the fewest constraints.

For most people, this sounds like more of the same. U.S. health care has never been heavily regulated, compared with other countries. But dismantling the one part of our insurance system that somewhat works, forcing everyone to buy health insurance on their own, hardly seems a step forward for most people.

So what's the alternative? We believe that quality, affordable health care should be a right. A person's ability to get health care should not depend on their ability to bargain in the free market, where only the strong survive. As we say in the ad, we need clear rules requiring private insurance companies to cover everyone -- even those with pre-existing conditions. And we need the security of knowing we can keep our current health plan, or we can choose a public plan like Medicare, so we're not at the mercy of the same profit-driven companies that got us into this mess!

The United States spends more for health care, and gets less for its money, than any industrialized nation. Our enormously wasteful and chaotically organized system is a drag on our global competitiveness as well as a drain on our wallets. Still, the millions of dollars the insurance and pharmaceutical industries spend on lobbying and political contributions have only served to prop up a failing system and drown out the voices for change. The silver lining in the economic shock we've experienced is that the country may be more ready than ever to contrast the false promise of an unregulated market with a bold, progressive approach that extends health care to every American.

The Institute for America's Future is a member of Health Care for America Now, the nationwide campaign for health care for all. Our ad invites everyone to join the campaign. We are challenging the misguided power of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. And we are building a people's movement to shape a health care system that works for all of us. We invite you to join us.

Roger Hickey is co-director of the Campaign for America's Future and leads its Social Security campaign. He is also co-author of " The Next Agenda Blueprint for a New Progressive Movement. "