There is a piece of legislation in Augusta for establishing a single-payer health care system in Maine. This bill, sponsored by Rep. Charles Priest, is a breath of fresh air to a country that spends more than twice the amount of money on health care per capita than any other nation on earth.
There is an excessive amount of information available addressing health care quality, access and cost, compiled by our nation’s top universities, various international organizations and think tanks. In every study, the United States ranks at the top in terms of cost, waste and inequality in treatment.
All of these studies — albeit outside libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute — share a consensus on two fronts. First, our health care system is broken and unsustainable. Second, a single-payer health care system provides universal quality access care most efficiently in terms of cost. We know this from the 2002 Mathematica study, commissioned by our state’s bipartisan Health Security Board.
This definitive study showed that by moving to a single-payer system, Maine could provide universal coverage to its citizens without having to increase health care spending beyond existing state levels. Even more impressive, “expenditures over time would decline as the system realizes savings through global budgeting, reductions in administrative costs, and enhanced access to primary and preventive care.”
Right now our country has a health care delivery sector dominated by medical-market entrepreneurs seeking a profit. This constrains the clinical freedom of physicians to deliver the best care to their patients, and places an undue burden on businesses that provide health insurance — creating a grossly inefficient and disproportionately expensive health care system that makes us less competitive globally.
What we have, in fact, is a health care trap, for success is measured by the profit margins of “health care providers” and the dividends paid to their investors and shareholders, to the detriment of those who are sick and suffering. Often these very same people end up finding themselves overwhelmed by medical debt, regardless of their insurance coverage.
Former President Nixon said in his message to Congress on February 18, 1971: “Just as our national government has moved to provide equal opportunity in areas such as education, employment and voting, so we must now work to expand the opportunity for all citizens to obtain a decent standard of medical care. For without good health, no man can fully utilize his other opportunities.”
In this for-profit enterprise of lost opportunities — known as our health care system — insurance companies are the sellers of health care and patients are the consumers. Under this arrangement, physicians and care practitioners have little influence and power over our health care policy, much as employees have little choice over which health insurance plans are offered to them by their employers. In addition, doctors have to take courses on these health insurance plans so they can know how to administer treatment to their patients.
Besides the conflict of interest that this creates, physicians are left devoting their energies to the ways in which care should be rationed based on how insurance policies are written, instead of how to better serve the public’s health. Yet we wonder why our doctors are leaving their chosen fields for other less demanding professions.
In our country, many of our residents wait until the last minute before seeking medical care, either because they are uninsured or they cannot afford to incur the financial setback written into the deductible portion of their health insurance policy. Diabetes is a good case in point. We waste billions of dollars treating individuals with diabetes by catching the disease in its advanced stages because our current health care system focuses on the costs of treatment more than on preventive medicine. Such is our decent standard of medical care.
Bill Whitmore, the director of Maine pricing for Anthem, stated in an October 2007 press release: “The individual health insurance market in Maine is broken and deteriorating rapidly.”
He elaborated by saying: “The rate increases of the past few years have forced many people to drop coverage and nearly a third of our individual members are paying annual deductibles of $15,000. We need to reform our insurance laws to make individual coverage more available and affordable, (i.e. eliminating guaranteed issuance) just as many other states already have done.”
No stronger testament can be made as to why we need to endorse Rep. Priest’s piece of legislation.
Our privatized insurance-based health care system is inordinately expensive and archaic in comparison with the rest of the westernized countries, which all have nationalized universal health plans or single-payer health care systems. Rep. Priest’s bill is both bold and insightful, and needs the public’s support.
Michael Owen of Orono is a student at the University of Maine.