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Our Health Care System Is Organized for the Wealthy -- We Can Change That

We are accustomed to living in a sharply tiered society, but it doesn't have to be that way with health care.
 
 
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Princeton health care economist Uwe Reinhardt recently recalled asking Victor Fuchs, a colleague, "When will we ever have universal health insurance in the U.S.?" Fuchs' answer:  "Not until World War III, a Great Depression, or a major epidemic that threatens everyone." 

In other words, Fuchs believed that it would take a catastrophe before Americans might finally realize that we are all in one boat together: Wars, natural disasters and economic upheaval can create great solidarity. 

We may not have long to wait for that moment. Despite President Obama's best efforts, it is all but inevitable that this recession will deepen. As the president recently warned, this is not an "ordinary, run-of –the-mill" recession.  In the worst-case scenario, the meltdown could lead to a "lost decade" of growth.

At this point, America's middle-class finds itself on the edge of a cliff.  As unemployment  rises, it will become apparent how quickly an upper-middle-class family can find itself part of the middle class -- no longer able to afford private school, skiing vacations, or, in the worst case scenario, the payments on a mega- mortgage. Meanwhile, middle-class families risk slipping quietly into the nearly invisible lower-middle-class -- a group often referred to as "the working poor."    

Rising insecurity should mean that the push for health care reform will build. But the recession cuts both ways: it also means that government tax revenues will shrink, leaving fewer dollars  for the subsidies we will need if we hope to cover everyone.  Conservatives will say that we simply can't afford health care reform.

Already, despite much talk of bi-partisanship, the debate over the fiscal stimulus passage makes it clear that conservatives are not in a compromising mood. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out that "centrist" Republicans have joined conservatives in stripping the stimulus package of $80 billion worth of programs that included "much needed spending on school construction," help for the unemployed, Food Stamps and aid for cash-strapped  sates -- "the measures that would do the most to reduce the depth and pain of this slump" for those who will be hit hardest. The version of the bill that cleared the Senate cut more than $50 billion from programs that specifically help children such as Head Start, school construction, education for disadvantaged children, and prevention programs

"How did this happen?" Krugman blames, "President Obama's belief that he can transcend the partisan divide -- a belief that warped his economic strategy."  The Princeton economist points out that "many people expected Mr. Obama to come out with a really strong stimulus plan, reflecting both the economy's dire straits and his own electoral mandate. Instead, however, he offered a plan that was clearly both too small and too heavily reliant on tax cuts. Why? Because he wanted the plan to have broad bipartisan support, and believed that it would. In the end, they barely escaped a filibuster with 61 votes. What does this mean for health care legislation?

There is a real danger, Uwe Reinhardt confides, that politicians will settle for universal coverage that continues to ration care according to ability to pay -- leaving us with a sharply tiered system. This, Reinhardt says, is what he thinks will happen, "unless we, the more affluent, step forward to tax ourselves."  

On the question of opening our wallets in order to cover everyone, the most recent Kaiser poll on health care reform conducted less than two months ago, is not encouraging. It shows that " the public is split down the middle in its willingness to sacrifice financially in order to cover more individuals: roughly half (49%) say they are not willing to pay higher insurance premiums or taxes, while a similar percentage (47%) say they are. There are big partisan differences here, with most Democrats (59%) saying they are willing to pay, most Republicans unwilling to pay (67%), and independents divided (49% willing, 47% unwilling)."

 
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