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A Death Every 12 Minutes: The Price of Not Having Medicare for All

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Americans are dying at a faster rate -- 1 every 12 minutes, 5 an hour, 120 a day, 45,000 a year -- not from war or natural disaster, but from lack of health insurance.

That's the stunning finding of a study published today in the American Journal of Public Health by leading researchers at Harvard Medical School. The report, "Health Insurance and Mortality in U.S. Adults," reveals that the uninsured have a 40 percent higher risk of death than those with private insurance, resulting in 45,000 preventable deaths annually.

These are our friends and neighbors, our fellow Americans who can't afford or otherwise get private health insurance. Increasingly, this group includes nearly all lower-income and a growing majority of middle-class Americans.

The Institute of Medicine estimated in 2002 that more than 18,000 Americans between the ages of 19 and 64 were dying each year as a result of being uninsured. The new number is two and a half times that figure.

Trying to get by, the uninsured and underinsured delay necessary care, put off filling drug prescriptions or take only some of their medications each day. Most are just one major illness or accident away from financial ruin.

A growing number of patients with cancer have to turn down recommended chemotherapy or radiation treatment because of inability to pay for care. If they have insurance, many find that the small print in their policies excludes such coverage. If they are uninsured, their risk of death multiplies. No one in dire need of medical care should be put in this lose-lose situation.

We're not talking about a third world country. This is the United States, one of the most industrialized nations in the world. But increasingly, we look more like a developing country -- 42nd in the world for life expectancy (behind Japan and most of Europe), and ranked last among 19 OECD countries in preventable deaths that should not occur in the presence of timely and effective health care.

Meanwhile, the charade goes on, as our elected representatives in Congress dither over health care reform. None of the bills in Congress will resolve the affordability and access problems.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the House health reform bill would still leave 17 million persons uninsured and that Sen. Baucus' bill, unveiled yesterday, would leave 25 million uninsured. That translates into tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths every year.

There are now 3,300 health industry lobbyists running around Washington, D.C., trying to shape the small print to their advantage in whatever bill finally gets passed (if any). The insurance and pharmaceutical companies and their hangers-on are spending $5 million a week to block real reform. Suffice it to say that none of these companies have the best interests of the uninsured or the underinsured at heart.

Through its trade group, America's Health Insurance Programs, the industry is fighting for its life (but not our lives). And so far, it is winning. By "cooperating" with health care "reform" by pledging to eliminate pre-existing conditions as a barrier to coverage, and saying they will take all comers in return for a government mandate that everyone be required to buy its shoddy products, the insurers are poised to reap a massive financial windfall.

So far, the bills in Congress set no limits on what the insurers can charge for premiums, and the legal requirements for covered benefits are likely to be minimal.

If a "reform" bill along these lines passes, it will be a bonanza for insurers, drug and medical device manufacturers, and other players in the medical-industrial complex, all at our expense. Since their revenues are our costs (as patients and taxpayers), there will be no cost containment.

We can prevent another 45,000 Americans from dying next year. An effective cure to the health care crisis is within our reach, and it lies within a single-payer, Medicare-for-All plan. By cutting out private insurance companies, we would not only save taxpayers billions, but deliver quality care to everyone. We shouldn't have to wait another 12 minutes.

Dr. John Geyman is professor emeritus of family medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, a past president of Physicians for a National Health Program and author of Do Not Resuscitate: Why the Health Insurance Industry Is Dying, and How We Must Replace It.