Arnold Schwarzenegger tells the San Francisco Chronicle today the inspiration for his healthcare proposals: "I come from a country, Austria, where everyone is insured." Why not move, then, to the kind of single-payer health system that Austria and every other industrialized nation enjoys?
Look at what Austria has to offer: longer life spans, less infant mortality, more caregivers and hospital beds per capita, fewer uninsured, and few if any families driven into bankruptcy by astronomical medical bills, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Sounds expensive? Wrong. Austria spends about $2,958 per person on health care, of 9.6% of GDP, according to the OECD. By contrast, the United States spends $5,711 per person--or 15.2% of GDP. And if US spending continues to rise at the same rate it has, that will double in just 20 years. How long can our economy handle a system broken this seriously?
WHO rankings make the comparison explicit. Assessing health efficiency in 191 countries in 2001, the WHO placed Austria 14th, the U.S. 72nd. Overall, in total health performance, the WHO in 2000 rated Austria 9th, the U.S. 37th.
There's no reason why Californians should not expect the same quality of care and access to services that are available in the country where our new governor was born. What separates the California from Austria is also what sets us apart from every industrialized country? Schwarzenegger's plan increases the role of private health care corporations (and increases their profits), while Austria's single-payer health system does away with the insurance company middlemen.
The irony is that, California passed a program last year, State Senator Sheila Kuehl's California Health Insurer Reliability Act (CHIRA),that was very similar to Austria's system. Like the Austrian model, Kuehl's bill would have set up a society-wide insurance pool. According to a non-partisan analysis by the Lewin Group, Kuehl's plan would save California $344 billion over ten years, by doing away with the marketing, bureaucracy, and profits that private insurers pull out of the health care system.
This money would allow California to offer universal health coverage with a single standard of care for all patients. What would this mean? Less infant mortality for California, fewer lives cruelly cut short by an inadequate health care system, and fewer families forced into poverty by bill they could not pay.
Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger vetoed this plan, despite a number of public opinion polls that should have made him think twice. In September, 56 per cent of responders to an ABC News/Kaiser Family Foundation/USA Today poll said they preferred a universal health plan "like Medicare," while a recent Field poll found 8 in 10 Californians want the government to assure universal health coverage. Kuehl's vetoed plan is the only one that would accomplish this.
Instead, Schwarzenegger proposed to move California further into the arms of the insurance corporations and further away from the proven merits of the "single-payer" health care enjoyed by Austria and every single other industrialized nation in the world. He proposes requiring every Californian to buy health insurance and every employer to provide it. The insurance companies will take their cut off the top of every dollar that comes their way, making our health care system less efficient the more involved they are.
Schwarzenegger is right about one thing, California can lead the nation to genuine health care reform. We can do that by moving toward the only system that has been shown to provide universal health coverage to a whole society: a single-payer system, like the one Schwarzenegger grew up using in Austria.
If it's good enough for Austria, it's good enough for us.