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N.M. Needs Health Care, Not Insurance

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By The Staff

A very complex, mandatory private insurance scheme recently passed the U.S. House. The public is being overwhelmed by sound bites on one hand about how great it is, on the other, how terrible.

We are hearing few of the details that are actually in the bill. Having read the bill, it is clear now that what started as health reform has emerged from the political process as health "deform," building on the worst, not the best of the current system.

It is still a toss-up as to whether the Senate will pass any bill this year. However, due to intense political pressure, the Senate is likely to pass a bill that will make some House provisions better and others worse. What actually comes out in the final conference-committee bill is anyone's guess at this point — so little time, so many deals still to be made, so many political funders to be appeased.

Yes, there are some good provisions. The best relate to improving existing programs like the Indian Health Service, community health centers, and health professionals education and training; all are important for New Mexico.

But there are bad provisions, which comprise most of the 1,990 pages of the bill. Here are five key reasons this legislation must be stopped:

• If passed, this law will move the U.S. farther from universal health care, making it harder than ever to accomplish healthcare justice in the future. If Congress does not have the courage to stand up to the private insurance industry now, it will be even more difficult in the future, especially after giving the industry trillions of new dollars through this terrible legislation. Let's call this what it is: another corporate bailout on the backs of working people.

Pay attention to your federal representatives as they carefully talk about "health insurance reform." They aren't talking about health reform any more. Congress could have defended and built up a system based on popular, high-quality government-run health programs like the military and veterans fully socialized health systems or Medicare, a single-payer program. Instead, the president and Congress let the corporations and government-haters take control of the agenda.

• The legislation institutionalizes permanent inequality in health care. Unlike Medicare where all beneficiaries have a single plan, this bill further divides the U.S. system into tiers based on ability to pay. It creates basic, enhanced, premium and premium-plus plans. A basic plan will provide only 70 percent of the coverage of a "reference benefit package," one that includes even fewer services than most insured people have today. The bill doesn't even mention coverage for essential services like vision and adult dental care except in the most costly premium-plus plan.

• Out-of-pocket costs remain sky high. Everyone will be required to pay monthly insurance premiums. Some low-wage workers will receive taxpayer subsidies on a sliding scale. The lowest income people will have full subsidies. But remember, this is not money for care, it is support only to buy insurance.

Almost everyone will have to meet a deductible, capped in the bill at $1,500 a year, higher than most insurance-plan deductibles today. On top of this, insurance companies can charge even more under various "cost sharing" schemes for items like co-pays and co-insurance.

• The legislation makes it illegal to not buy health insurance. The penalties are described in a section of the legislation called "Shared Responsibility." This will let the IRS impose a tax of up to 2.5 percent of modified adjusted gross income for not having health insurance. People on the financial edge, people fighting foreclosure to stay in their homes or people who are unemployed all or part of a year will not be able to afford the insurance premiums or the penalties for not having insurance.

• We will all be drowning in paperwork, which will continue to drive up administrative costs. Right now, insurance administrative waste is about 30 percent of every healthcare dollar— or about $1 billion a day. Adding more people to an insurance-based system will result in even more money going into this bottomless pit.    

The United States can do better. We can build on a strengthened and well-funded Medicare program. In Medicare, when a person reached the age of eligibility or is determined to qualify because they have a permanent disability, they are in, and there is no re-enrollment.

Imagine real reform, as simple as adding people ages 55 to 65 years old to Medicare in 2010, 35-55 in 2011, and so on until everyone is included by 2013. The bills that promote this kind of reform are under 200 pages. They are simple to implement, cost effective and equitable. Choose a doctor, choose a hospital when needed and let the government pay the bills. Everyone is in one system.

That is what real health reform would look like.

Miller is a long-time public health professional and health care advocate. She lives in Ojo Sarco.