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Risë K. Phillips Headshot

The Elusive Pot of Gold

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While politicians argue about the best way to control, lessen or reverse our country's descent from an economic powerhouse to a lesser status, many of the people whose lives are skidding down this slippery slope are suffering. And while this suffering impacts their lives in many ways, I am most keenly aware of their struggle to either get healthy or stay healthy. As CEO of a busy and highly effective federally qualified heath center in South Los Angeles, I see the changes taking place -- changes that impact everyone, but are hardest on those who never reached the pinnacle of that economic slope.

The number of people who lacked health insurance last year climbed to nearly 50 million, according to the latest statistics. In 2000, 64.1 percent of the people with health insurance were in an employer health insurance program. By 2010, that number had dropped to 55.3 percent and it continues to decrease. Not only do people lose their health care as they lose jobs, but today employers are offering fewer benefits and people are opting out of employer plans as higher premium costs are passed on to employees. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average health insurance premium for family coverage has more than doubled over the past decade.

In the microcosm of our health centers, our patient numbers have increased from 10,000 to nearly 12,500 in just one year. Between 2008 and 2011, our annual patient visits have increased 46 percent. Over half of our patients (61 percent) now come to us with no insurance.

But numbers don't speak to the anguish of a mother with a sick baby, or a young woman with a cough who can't afford to miss work, or the construction worker whose asthma keeps him off the job. These are the people who delay health care services because they are unable to afford care in what others consider the richest country in the world. As these individuals suffer ill health, the entire nation does, as well. A country whose citizens suffer poor health is nothing, but a poor country. What are we going to do about it? Wait, as they get sicker or make the changes now that will help them find the elusive pot of gold -- the means to decent health.