Americans should be rooting for health care reform

Posted June 29, 2009, at 6:06 p.m.

As Americans, we are constantly striving to achieve a balance between public and private interests. I was reminded of this at the gym the other morning. Among the idle chatter, two threads emerged — recent Red Sox dominance of the Yankees and skyrocketing health care costs. From the perspective of most Mainers, one of these is a very good thing. The other is quite daunting.

We’re not alone when it comes to health care. Things are heating up in Washington and we may see the most significant national reform since the inception of Medicare. In one fell swoop, Congress is seeking to make health care more affordable, ensure that more people get covered, and that we get quality care. Ambitious? You bet, but who would have thought that the Red Sox would be the first team ever to come back from three games down in a postseason series in 2004 and then go on to win the World Series after 86 years?

Regardless of which team you root for, we should all be rooting for health reform. On the surface most of us are reasonably happy with the care we receive. While it would be nice to spend more time with the doctor and less time filling out paperwork, we’ll take what we can get. The bigger issue for most of us, including my buddies at the gym, is cost. We all know that insurance is ridiculously expensive. What’s more galling is that those of us lucky enough to have insurance still pay an arm and a leg for the care we receive.

Something’s fishy here. How can it be that our ability to pay for health care gets increasingly out of reach, while insurance companies continue to reap record profits? On average, the country’s largest health insurers saw their profits rise by nearly 600 percent from 2000 to 2007. No wonder insurers don’t want to allow us to vol-untarily buy into a public insurance pool that would give us more affordable choices and provide a mechanism for extracting real cost savings from the current system.

Expecting insurers to take our best interests at heart is like asking the Red Sox to hand over their 2004 World Series trophy to the Yankees. It just doesn’t make sense. Our experience in Maine demonstrates that, absent a public option and associated cost savings that come with it, rates will continue to skyrocket.

We know that a public option can work. In the two years before Maine implemented major health reform in 2003, insurance premiums in the state grew by 13.2 percent a year, higher than the New England average of 10.1 percent. In the two years after, Maine premiums rose 6.4 percent, half the previous rate, while New England saw growth of 8.1 percent.

The problem is that when it comes to standing up against the insurance companies and giving consumers greater choice, no state can go it alone. In much the same way that insurance companies have bogged down Maine’s efforts to achieve comprehensive reform at every turn, they have launched an all-out assault on letting us voluntarily buy into a public insurance pool. They claim that such an option would be unfair. Unfair to whom? Next thing you know they’ll be convincing us to shutter public colleges and universities because they are unfair to students and researchers at private institutions.

We must develop a uniquely American solution to the current health care crisis, one that achieves a balance between public and private interests. National health reform is essential and must include a public option. Without it, insurance and pharmaceutical companies will continue to realize outsized profits at our expense. They’ve had their chance to reform the system. The results have been less than impressive — unless you have a financial interest in any of these companies.

Now is the time to raise your voice in opposition to such tyranny. On behalf of my buddies at the gym, “Go Sox and Go Public Option.”

Garrett Martin is a policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

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