Saturday, February 7, 2009

Health Care Reform Would Boost Economy


By Heidi Topp Brooks and Lydia Pendley

This year's multi-billion dollar bailouts of the banking and auto industry were meant to give the impression that these huge infusions of cash would buoy the economy and result in better circumstances for all. But many of us were left wondering where exactly those hundreds of billions of dollars would go and how exactly that would translate into improved conditions for regular Americans and New Mexicans.

The state of the economy and the repercussions from these drastic measures will no doubt be President Obama’s top priority. Rather than focus on more massive bailouts to huge industries, the administration must focus on a long-neglected issue that, once addressed, would not only give a boost to businesses large and small, but have real results for struggling Americans. That issue is health care reform.

The emotional and moral arguments for reforming our broken health care system are well known, but expanding the public role in health care to make sure that every American has coverage makes good economic sense too. Businesses have seen their private insurance costs almost double in recent years. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, employer-sponsored premiums for family coverage have soared from $6,438 in 2000 to $12,680 in 2008. In New Mexico average annual health insurance premiums rose 92.3 percent from $6,222 to $11,967 between 2000 and 2007. As a result, many businesses, especially small businesses, are being forced to cut insurance for their employees. The employees, when forced to choose between a job with no insurance or no job at all, will often choose the paycheck.

When these employees join the ranks of the 45 million other Americans, including 440,000 New Mexicans, who are uninsured, they subject themselves to the very real risk of falling into debt due to medical care. A recent report from the Commonwealth Fund found that 72 million people have problems paying their medical bills or are in medical debt, the most vulnerable of whom are the uninsured. Another report by an Emory University economist finds that unpaid hospital bills cost $45 billion a year, with much of the burden being shouldered by those with insurance. A recent Harvard Law School study found that half of all home foreclosures have medical causes, with nearly one-quarter of all home foreclosures due to unmanageable medical bills.

President Obama himself has acknowledged the need to reform health care and invest in publicly funded programs to help alleviate the financial crisis. While announcing Tom Daschle as the new secretary of health and human services, Obama stated, "the time has come — this year, in this new administration — to modernize our health care system for the 21st century; to reduce costs for families and businesses; and to finally provide affordable, accessible health care for every American." He added that health reform, "has to be interwoven into our economic recovery program…This can't be put off because we're in an emergency. This is part of the emergency!"

It is heartening to hear that Obama recognizes that health care reform and economic recovery cannot be disassociated. He can affirm his commitment to these two issues by working with Congress early on in his administration to pass legislation that supports and expands public programs like Medicaid, Medicare and the State Children's Health Insurance Program to make sure that every American has access to quality health care, and that American families do not have to add unavoidable medical costs to their list of economic woes.

New Mexico can take its own immediate action toward real health care reform by establishing a truly independent Health Care Authority that will take on the job of developing a comprehensive health care reform action plan by September 2010 for accessible and affordable health care for all people living in New Mexico. The Health Care Authority should be independent from legislative, executive or vested financial interests and accountable to the people of New Mexico and charged to develop sustainable methods to finance a health care system that incorporates the best strategies from the public and private sectors, including community rating, measures that assure portability of health coverage, and implementation of guaranteed coverage regardless of previous health conditions.

New Mexico and the nation's dismal economic conditions make it more urgent than ever to take bold action to bring about health care reform. New Mexico cannot afford to wait. We must start to by creating the Health Care Authority.
Brooks is an attorney, student in UNM's Masters in Public Health program, and longtime citizen activist on hunger and poverty with RESULTS. Pendley is a member of the Health Care for All Campaign and the co-group leader of RESULTS-Santa Fe.
Copyright © 2009 by the New Mexico Editorial Forum. 2/09