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Commentary: Extending Health Coverage to All

By Barbara Jezioro

Buffalo, NY – As current events confirm, health care has become a critical issue for all Americans. Recently, California supermarket workers went on strike to protest proposed health benefit costs. For the same reason, trash haulers in Chicago struck last year. Here in Buffalo, health care insurance was the crux of a three-year contract recently ratified by county workers.

Over the past two years, health insurance premiums rose at the highest rate seen in a decade. This past year, the average premium increased by six times the rate of inflation. Average co-pays have also climbed.

Increasingly, for many employers, health care is the number one expense next to employee salaries, and only a few firms pay still pay 100% of premiums for family coverage. Americans spend more than any nation on health care, yet the World Health Organization report of 2000 rates health care in the United States below most other western countries and even below countries such as Cuba, Cypress, and Columbia. What's wrong with this picture? Why are we paying more for less? Why are more than 40 million Americans without health insurance of any kind and what is our government doing about it?

We need a universal single payer health care system for all Americans now. The mechanism is already in place. It's called Medicare. On July 30, 1965, President Johnson signed legislation creating the Medicare program. For the past four decades, Medicare is a system that has worked, by providing reliable medical coverage for the elderly and disabled.

The CEOs of private, health maintenance organizations are among the highest paid in the nation. While the administrative costs of HMO's run between fifteen and twenty-one percent, Medicare compares favorably with administrative costs of only about one to two percent of budget. Instead of embracing Medicare as a potential health care system for all Americans, however, the current administration, under the guise of reform, seems to be doing everything in its power to dismantle Medicare as we know it.

Under current Medicare "reform" legislation, money that Americans put into the Medicare trust fund will be funneled into private insurance organizations that will, in turn, provide seniors with a limited and inadequate prescription drug coverage. Currently, drug costs are rising, on average, ten percent a year. The new law imposes an arbitrary cap on what the government can spend on the Medicare program but provides no controls on drug prices and makes it next to impossible to re-import cheaper drugs from other countries. That means that in the years to come, beneficiaries will probably have to spend more not less for drugs. The new law also provides even more corporate welfare by providing massive subsidies for HMO's competing with Medicare.

Furthermore, the rules and choices in this new program are more bewildering and complicated than most people can deal with.

Why is it then that Congress passed this bill and the President signed it? The answer, in one word, is "money." During the past three years alone, pharmaceutical and HMO special interest groups funneled more than a billion dollars to our lawmakers -- one could consider it payment for services rendered. Given the current political climate of greed and deception, it's hardly surprising, but it's still a national disgrace.

Rather than seeking to dismantle a Medicare system that has proven its worth, our lawmakers should seek to extend basic medical coverage to all Americans. Favoring a profit driven health care system and fueling CEO salaries is not the way to do it.

How we treat our weak and elderly is a measure of our society. Health care should be the right of everyone, not the privilege of a few and it shouldn't cost anyone an arm and a leg.

Listener-Commentator Barbara Jezioro is an environmental engineering technician who lives in Buffalo.