Jewish World Review June 3, 2003 / 3 Sivan, 5763

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Consumer Reports

Curing what ails us | Economic recovery is taking hold, and the stock market has taken a positive turn, but a lot of people in this country are still struggling financially.

While millions of middle-income Americans have felt the strain of corporate layoffs and 401(k) losses, the greatest burden for many middle-income Americans is having to live without health insurance.

Republicans and Democrats, in the wind-up to the presidential election next year, are advancing proposals to provide health insurance for the estimated 41 million people who have been without coverage at some point in the past year. Plans offered by the candidates and the White House range from the bold but excessively expensive to the inadequate but prudent.

I hope this presidential campaign produces real solutions. Whether you look at this monumental social problem from the perspective of a humanitarian or a hard-boiled pragmatist, the need for a solution is clear. And while politics will be necessary to ultimately resolve the issue, the needs of millions of our fellow citizens transcend partisan politics.

The need for health insurance is not limited to the elderly or the poor. In fact, 57 percent of the newly uninsured are from households with an annual income of $75,000 or more. According to Ken Pollack of Families USA, "Over the course of the last two years, almost one out of three non-elderly Americans were uninsured for some period of time, so this reaches very deeply into the middle class."

This problem also extends beyond the ranks of the unemployed. Insurance premiums are rising. Small-business owners, in too many cases, simply cannot afford adequate coverage for themselves or their employees. Five years ago, company-sponsored health insurance cost about $3,800 per employee. It now costs almost $6,000 per employee. And during the past two years, spending on health care has increased by more than $200 billion - a jump of nearly 17 percent - primarily because of the rising cost of prescription drugs.

Several states, including Maine, Illinois and Hawaii, have come up with plans to try to ease the burden of uninsured people who need prescription drugs but can't afford them. The Maine plan will allow the state government to negotiate lower prices from drug companies, which would result in a 25 percent discount to the uninsured. The drug companies tried to block the plan in court, arguing that the lower prices would hurt their earnings and revenues, and even impede the research and development of new drugs.

Winton Gibbons, a senior analyst at William Blair & Company, points out that it would only take "2 to 3 percent of the total population of Maine who aren't buying prescription drugs to now buy drugs with the discount of 25 percent (for the pharmaceutical companies) to be at break even."

Although, the Supreme Court sided with the state of Maine, the federal government still wants to intrude upon the Maine RX plan. Maine Governor John Baldacci told me last week that he and the Maine Legislature plan to have the program up and running later this year. Good for him, and good for the people in the state of Maine.

But what about the rest of us?

Candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, led by Rep. Richard Gephardt, are pushing this issue to the forefront. Gephardt's proposal to provide tax credits for employers to provide health care insurance is expensive, but perhaps it's workable.

Sen. John Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean are making proposals of their own, and so will Sen. Joe Lieberman. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will put forward a plan in June.

It costs hospitals and doctors more than $35 billion to care for those who are uninsured, and there is a crushing burden on millions of Americans who have to spend their last dollar and borrow money for their health care. That's just wrong.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study estimates that proper health care assured through health insurance adds not only healthy years of life for each individual, but also boosts their annual earnings by 10 percent to 30 percent. And that, of course, adds to our national wealth.

The humanitarian need for health-care coverage is overwhelming, and the economics are absolutely compelling.

It's time to cure what ails us.

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Lou Dobbs is the anchor and managing editor of CNN's "Lou Dobbs Moneyline." Comment by clicking here.

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