Putting Politics Before Healthcare

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - June 15, 2005
| Del.icio.us

Two Saturdays ago, I went down to the ILWU hall on Atkinson Drive to listen to U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington state talk about healthcare.

McDermott knows something about the subject. He received his medical degree from the University of Illinois, specialized in psychiatry and spent two years as chief psychiatrist at the Long Beach Naval Station during the Vietnam War. He practiced privately for another 17 years before his election to Congress in 1988.

McDermott’s audience was the local chapter of the Americans for Democratic Action, and he knew in advocating a comprehensive, single-payer healthcare system for the United States that he was preaching to the choir:

“If Congress were half as smart as Hawaii, we’d have a singlepayer healthcare system. Hawaii has led the nation in healthcare. Your 1974 employer mandate has been a model. If it happens here, it will happen around the country. The Canadian single-payer system grew out of legislation in the provinces of British Columbia and Saskatchewan.”

According to McDermott, 47 million Americans — 16 percent of the nation’s population — are without healthcare coverage. In Hawaii, 9 percent of the population lacks coverage. “The only state that does better than Hawaii,” says McDermott, “is Minnesota. But still, even in Hawaii, one in 10 people falls through the cracks.

“Catastrophic healthcare costs are the No. 1 cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States, and the skyrocketing costs of healthcare for employers are causing them to cut back on the coverage they provide. It’s the nation’s No. 1 domestic problem, and President Bush has said nothing about it. He points to tort reform, a very small part of the costs of healthcare — another one of his diversions from the real issues.”

McDermott argues that economically universal healthcare coverage would benefit the country: “In 2003, we spent $5,400 per American on healthcare. The second highest expenditure per citizen by an industrialized country was Switzerland — $2,700. The average for the industrialized nations was $2,450.

“Yet for all that additional expenditure, our mortality rates are no better than the other industrialized countries that spend much less.

“Where does that extra money go? One hundred billion dollars of it goes to paperwork. The British have cut out the paperwork. So have the Canadians. So have the Germans.”

The recent congressional debate over stem-cell research has given McDermott hope. Democrats and Republicans joined on that vote to loosen the President’s restrictions on the use of stem cells. While Bush promises to veto the bill, McDermott feels that ultimately “science will take over, not the politicians.

“Democracy and science will run over the president. We can’t continue to go to the Bible rather than to science in matters of health. We can’t survive much longer following that path.”

The president’s policy, McDermott argues, will also hurt the United States economically: “Singapore is currently recruiting stem-cell researchers from the United States. Other countries will control medicine.”

McDermott also feels that as science becomes able to predict, for example, that a woman is genetically predisposed to breast cancer, insurance companies will refuse to insure women showing that genetic structure.

“Insurance companies basically cover you for everything you’re not going to get, the rest they throw into the high-risk pool,” says McDermott. “With the knowledge science can increasingly give them, so many people will be unable to get insurance that we’ll have to go to a universal system.”

The universal system that McDermott envisions will have a single source of revenue, the federal government; a guaranteed set of benefits for everyone; statedeveloped health delivery systems (“Managed care,” he says, “has worked well in Hawaii, but they don’t even know what it is in Ohio.”); a federal oversight system that insures that all receive their benefits.

“No other industrialized country has failed to provide universal healthcare for its citizens,” says McDermott. “When critics of a universal, single-payer system say that we can’t do it in the United States, they’re saying we’re not as smart as the French or the British or the Germans. The Germans have been doing it since 1883.

“What’s lacking in the United States is not the smarts, it’s the political will. It’s the political leadership.”

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