Desperate Times, Half Measures

In the closing days of the war for Iowa, the battle over health care rages on.

"It would be extremely unfair," Obama's health care advisers recently blasted, "to enact a mandate before we make health care affordable." Take that, Hillary, you dirty insurance-peddler!

"He's called his plan 'universal.' Then he called it 'virtually universal,'" Clinton herself fired back, "But it is not either." Bang! Pow! Feel that, Obama, you misleading politician, you!

If it sounds utterly insane to imagine this half-hearted policy wonkfest as some kind of a heated debate... It should. The only remotely interesting thing about this most nuanced wedge issue of all time is that both candidates seem more aware of their opponent's plan than of their own. So, please allow me to explain the Clinton and Obama plans to their respective candidates: They're both awful, and they're both a hell of a lot better than the big nothing we have now.

You see, Clinton, Obama and Edwards have centered their health care plans on getting some form of coverage for the estimated 40-47 million Americans without insurance. To uninsured Americans and a nation facing nothing short of a major health care crisis, this sounds like a godsend. And why shouldn't it? The situation, quite simply, is desperate.

A Harvard study released in February of 2005 concluded that just under half of all people filing for bankruptcy met the definition of "major medical bankruptcy." In order to meet this definition, a debtor had to have unpaid medical bills meeting a certain sum, lost at least two weeks of work due to injury or illness, or mortgaged a home to pay medical bills. When researchers expanded the definition to include events like childbirth and death of a spouse, over half of all those filing met the criteria.

The stories researchers uncovered were heartrending, to say the least. Sixty-one percent of these working and middle-class families skipped necessary medical care, 30 percent had lost utilities, and 22 percent actually cut back on food just to make payments on their debt. The last must have been a tough cost to trim, since Americans already spend more on health care than they do on food.

Here's where things get really frightening (and the candidates' plans all fall apart): Seventy-six percent of these people had medical insurance. Many of those lost it when they became ill and therefore unable to work. For the rest, it just wasn't enough to cover the staggering costs of an out-of-control system of medicine. Researchers concluded that a national health insurance system could eliminate half of all bankruptcies, sparing about 2.2 million hard-working, bill-paying citizens from financial ruin every year.

The powers of darkness that comprise the US congress acted quickly, joining forces to pass a solution just six weeks after the report was released. Their answer: A bill that made it harder for Americans to file bankruptcy. With 19 Senate Democrats voting "yea," it was truly what is known as a bipartisan effort -- a cause so misguided it took the collected effort of both parties to rationalize it. For the record, neither Clinton nor Obama voted in favor of that bill. Clinton wasn't around to cast a vote (Bill was recovering from a heart surgery that could have plunged many Americans into bankruptcy,) and Obama voted "nay". However, their fellow hopeful Joe Biden did creep over to the dark side on this one, as did John McCain, the only Republican thus far to offer a serious health care plan.

Now, three years after the Harvard study and subsequent legislative atrocity, Democrats are spending millions bickering over who can most effectively implement a solution that won't address 76% of the problem.

And that's not all they won't address. None of the plans stop the horrific gouging of sick Americans by drug companies. None of them address preventative care in a serious way. None deal in a substantive way with the real-life problems of faster access, sure to only worsen as more become insured (except, strangely enough, for McCain's). And do any of them seriously consider how insurance companies will react to mandatory insurance? Just imagine all the "affordable" plans that will spring up, all covering nothing at a very reasonable price. And, yet the bar for American health care debate has been set so low that these plans can actually be seen as major progress.

I hate to beat a dead horse here (but it arrived ill and that was all its PPO would pay for): The only possible solution to this catalog of problems is a national, single-payer health care system.

It's been stated many times that virtually every essential public service is handled by the government, except health care. Rightly so, since it seems a rather absurd omission--the very purpose of government is, after all, to provide a basic level of safety. If you're mugged, beaten and set on fire, the government will hose you down and even punish the guy who did it. You're just on your own when it comes to those potentially-fatal burns. The 10.5 million Americans with cancer are on their own, too--unless the Saudis decide to suddenly invade the Ozarks. If that happens, the government will totally have their back. Strange priorities indeed.

Sadly, the health insurance industry, drug companies and lobby firms have bilked Americans out of a lot of money for a long time, and they've anticipated the threat of socialized medicine for just as long. So the arguments against a national health care system have been repeated so many times that they've become ingrained in our collective psyche. Government bureaucracy ruins everything, even though Medicare is far more efficient than private insurance. Free-market health care systems lead to better treatment, even though every indicator says just the opposite. You won't be able to pick your doctor, even though that isn't how it's worked in the countries the program is modeled after. The lies have become so accepted that politicians fear to challenge them.

As long as we allow them to, our leaders will offer us small solutions to big problems. Clinton got burned in 1993, and now makes no secret of the fact that she won't do anything until we've built "a national consensus." The US health care system has class IV hemorrhaging and our leaders are tossing us band-aids. It's probably too late for Iowans, but if the people of New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida demand to see a real doctor, eventually, they might get one.