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Louise Marie Roth Headshot

The Health Care Bubble: The Status Quo Is Unsustainable

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Everyone loves to be angry with Wall Street and the mortgage lenders for causing a big financial mess. That's understandable, and I have certainly had my share to say about high bonuses on Wall Street. But I am struck by the sheer idiocy of some comments from defenders of the private health insurers in the U.S. who don't seem to recognize that health care built on private insurance companies is headed for the same kind of train wreck. Planted by Republicans and lobbyists to disrupt town meetings, and writing comments on articles and blogs in support of health care reform, defenders of the status quo seem unable to see the big insurance bubble for what it is: an unsustainable out-of-control behemoth headed for a huge collision.

Never mind that I am chronically angry with my health insurance company, United Healthcare, which cost over $17,000 in the last fiscal year, a large chunk of which is paid by my employer. If that's not a huge tax, I don't know what is. No wonder we have not received adequate cost-of-living salary adjustments during the nine years that I have worked here. Meanwhile, they recently denied the claim for my son's 2-year-old check-up. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends well-child check-ups at 15, 18, and 24 months, and then every year after that. But the plan says that he has maxed out his benefits for well-child check-ups this year so I get the bill. Do the defenders of private insurance companies never receive this kind of absurd denial of payment after paying through the nose for the coverage that they love so much?

But all hatred aside, it is clear that the current system of private health insurance is economically unsustainable. Health care costs have been rising 12% per year, while incomes were rising 2% per year before the current recession. As increases in income are likely to be small or non-existent this year because many people have lost their jobs or had to accept pay-cuts or furloughs, health care costs just keep rising. The math simply doesn't work. It's like the housing bubble that few seemed to see coming as prices peaked in 2006. House prices can't increase 30% a year forever. It doesn't take long before people can't afford to buy a house, and those who already own them can't pay their mortgages. We all know how that story ended: in a huge recession. The story of a health insurance system built on private companies whose primary goal is the pursuit of profits for their shareholders will also have a bad, bad ending.

It is clear that retaining the existing health care system in the U.S. will drive the economy into the ground. It is also clear that the most economical solution to covering everyone and reducing costs is to implement a universal single-payer insurance system. Unfortunately there is no political support for that -- partly because the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries own the two houses of Congress and partly because Americans fetishize the free market with its valorization of private over public (both of which, again, brought you the housing bubble and the financial meltdown).

What isn't clear is whether the lobby-funded lawmakers will reform health care in a way that benefits the public and the economy, or will keep letting big business run this country into the ground. Maybe then I will finally convince my husband that we should move back to Canada, where health care is both cheaper and has better results.