Noted author promotes ‘moral commitment’ to universal health care

Posted Nov. 08, 2011, at 3:24 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 08, 2011, at 5:51 p.m.
T.R. Reid
T.R. Reid

BANGOR, Maine — Extending health care coverage to every man, woman and child in America ultimately would save the country billions of dollars each year, according to best-selling author T.R. Reid.

Those savings would be realized over time as Americans adopt more healthful behaviors, seek timely treatment for health problems and reduce their reliance on high-cost emergency services.

But, Reid said on Tuesday in a conversation at Husson University, important barriers must be overcome, including the for-profit nature of the powerful and well-funded for-profit health insurance industry.

“The most important step is to make the moral commitment to cover everyone,” he said.

Every other wealthy democracy on the planet has made that commitment, Reid said, and each has developed a unique strategy for doing so. Some rely on government-subsidized health systems while others have a robust and competitive private sector or a combination of the two. And though health care is not perfect in nations such as France, Germany, England, Canada, Japan and Switzerland, those countries all boast better health standings and more equitable health care systems than the United States and pay, on average, less than half per person of what Americans pay.

Reid, author of the 2009 best-seller “The Healing of America,” spoke in Bangor as part of a weeklong tour of the state aimed at promoting the discussion of alternatives to the rapidly worsening health care crisis in this country. Those alternatives don’t need to take the form of “socialized medicine” in a fully government-run system, he said, stressing that most countries have a role for both public and private sectors.

But, he said, no other industrialized country in the world has allowed for-profit insurers to play so large a role in their health care systems. Insurance companies in America, most of which answer to investor groups, typically pay exorbitant salaries to their senior executives, employ hundreds of workers charged with finding reasons to deny coverage and effectively lobby state and federal lawmakers for favorable legislation to increase their profits, he said.

Reid also took aim at the pharmaceutical industry, which succeeded in banning negotiation for lower drug prices in Medicare, the single largest purchaser of pharmaceuticals in the country.

Americans pay far more for drugs than their counterparts in other countries, he said, largely due to the failure to negotiate prices.

“We have done such a terrible job of using our drug purchasing power,” he said. “We subsidize lower drug costs in other countries.”

There is some good news. Reid said there are places in America where high-quality health care is being delivered more equitably, such as a community in his home state of Colorado where physicians decided to provide care to everyone regardless of their coverage, or lack thereof, and to pool the reimbursements they receive.

Respected hospitals such as the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio are improving the quality of the care they provide while holding down costs, he said. And public and private groups are working to reduce geographic differences in how much is spent on health care for Medicare recipients.

Reid’s visit to Maine is supported by a number of state health groups and organized by the Portland-based Maine Health Management Coalition, which earlier this fall announced an initiative to get local book groups across Maine to read “The Healing of America” in preparation for Reid’s tour.

Reid’s talk in Bangor was sponsored by Husson University and Brewer-based Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems. EMHS Vice President for Business Development Jerry Whalen said Reid’s ideas support work already taking place in health care systems around the country to provide more effective care at lower costs. Programs that promote access to primary care providers, use electronic medical records to improve patient care and track provider management of chronic diseases such as diabetes are examples of such efforts, he said.

“Many providers across the nation recognize that this change is something that really needs to happen,” he said.

Though participation in the book group initiative has been limited largely to the Portland area, Reid is scheduled to visit a number of sites in Maine. His 5:30 p.m. talk Tuesday, Nov. 8, at the Portland Public Library will be simulcast to public libraries in Lewiston, Bangor, Skowhegan and York. A complete listing of his appearances is available on the website of the Maine Health Management Coalition, www.getbettermaine.org.

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