Imagine that you or a loved one unexpectedly needs emergency medical treatment. Perhaps you get in a car accident, or get a severe laceration working in the yard, or your child has a serious fall while playing. Imagine that an ambulance rushes you to an emergency room --- but is turned away because the ER is already besieged with patients.
This hypothetical scenario is a reality for thousands of Americans. The Institute of Medicine recently reported that on average, an ambulance is turned away from an emergency room once a minute in America. Emergency rooms are in crisis, overburdened due to the fact that 425 fewer ERs exist to serve 24 million more patients than they did a decade ago. A significant contributor to the increase in patients is the growing number of Americans without health insurance, estimated at 45.8 million in 2004. Millions more carry insurance inadequate to their needs. People who can't afford adequate health insurance also can't afford preventive medical care, and consequently defer treatment until their health degenerates to the point where they are forced into the health care option of last resort --- the ER, where by law, hospitals must provide treatment regardless of patients' ability to pay.
This ripple effect of ER overuse, in turn, affects anyone who might require unexpected, immediate medical attention, which is everyone. And thanks to the GOP's abominable Medicare Part D prescription drug program, the burden on emergency rooms will steadily worsen as more and more seniors fall into the "doughnut hole" which leaves them responsible for 100% of their prescription drug costs. Not surprisingly, the same GOP leaders who rammed through Medicare Part D have a non-solution for the millions of Americans without health insurance: health savings accounts, which are best summarized as an incentive for the uninsured to set aside money they don't have to purchase health care they can't afford which encourages "last resort" medicine instead of preventive care.
A recent blue-ribbon panel identified a better solution: universal health care. I support a flexible mandate that allows states to identify what works and what does not, but the precise means is not nearly so important as the goal itself. When every American is guaranteed care, the culture of "last resort" medicine can be replaced by a culture of preventive care, which will not only ease the ER crisis, but lower overall health care costs. Economies of scale will yield additional savings when drug companies and other vendors are forced to negotiate prices with government insurers each representing millions of patients --- the kind of negotiations which the abysmal Medicare Part D legislation currently prohibits. And that's just the beginning.
Opponents deride universal health care as "socialized medicine". It's not. It simply means that a state or federal agency takes the place of private insurers. And while some dismissively scoff that all government agencies are inherently bloated and inefficient, this old saw doesn't square with the facts. The Veterans Administration, a federal government agency, ranks as hands-down the best health care provider in America by any measure you care to name. By rolling back a small portion of George Bush's irresponsible tax cuts, we can afford to provide all Americans with a minimum standard of necessary care. And while such a fundamental change provides profound and obvious benefits --- like rectifying the embarrassing fact that the wealthiest nation on earth has a higher infant mortality rate than Cuba --- there are subtler benefits as well.
Universal health care for working Americans means an end to portability concerns --- no one will be trapped in a dead-end job by an existing health condition. This in turn means a more competitive labor market, leading to increased wages. Workers who are better paid and like their jobs are more productive, giving a boost to the economy. And employers will be freed from the burden of carrying health insurance for their employees, allowing them to devote more time and money to their core business.
Nearly 10 million of those currently uninsured are children. Universal health care means better prenatal care, guaranteed childhood vaccinations, and healthier kids. Healthier kids do better in school (and healthier teachers are better teachers), leading to a better educated populace and additional economic benefits down the road.
Republicans promote their tax cuts by arguing that they put more money in your pocket, that they boost the economy and pay for themselves. While tax cuts largely fail to deliver on these promises, universal health care provides these benefits and a great deal more. We have the chance to improve the bottom line of businesses and workers alike, grow a healthier future for our children and noticeably improve the lives of practically every American. All we need is a Congress with the political will to do it.
Co-written by Coleen Rowley, Candidate for Congress in Minnesota's 2nd District and David Bailey, research and communications volunteer for the campaign.