Universal health care for the United States?

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Have you noticed the lack of health care in your area? I have, in Santa Cruz.

So many GPs have retired because of the astronomical price of liability insurance they must pay to stay in practice, along with the mounting sheaves of paperwork they are required to maintain -- not to mention the expensive staff they must keep to deal with it.

As if that weren't enough, a further disincentive for these doctors is the difficulty in getting reimbursed from insurance companies and the hoops they must jump through to get even a portion of what they bill. (In our clinic, Lesley and I simply refuse to take insurance. If people want to try to get reimbursed for our services from their insurance companies, they submit the paperwork themselves.)

Insurance companies today dictate what they will or will not cover; the basis of their decision is personal profit. It seems more than a little disingenuous for these companies and others to accuse a proposed hopefully universal health care bill that may do the same.

In either case, people are free to pay for services their plan will not cover or to seek what they believe will be better quality. As it stands, Americans are flocking to other countries such as Thailand or Tahiti, where they know they will get superior health care for a fraction of the cost presently in the United States.

Being so closely involved with American health care for the last 35 years of my career, I have had plenty of opportunities to speak with people, friends and patients from the UK, Canada, France, and Italy who seem quite happy with their health care system and have come to take for granted that this is something that a wealthy country should provide to its citizens.

Recently I had first-hand experience of another nation's universal health care system. Last May, I took a trip to Italy with my grandson. During the first three days in Rome, he was very sick. I decided he should see a medical doctor and I was prepared to be confronted with a large bill comparable to what such a hospital emergency service would cost me in California. I didn't know that Italy had universal health care. When we went to be admitted for examination, few questions were asked. They looked at our passports, that's all. They didn't even question the fact that he wasn't my son and only asked about my relationship to him. It took no longer than six minutes or so to fill out a paper, name, age and complaint before we were put into a cue to be seen.

He was examined by one of the few doctors in the Rome hospital who spoke English. We waited about two or three hours for the results of a blood test. When his condition was deemed not serious, the doctor wrote a prescription for some antibiotics and another drug that would relieve his stomach distress and we simply walked out the door, no further questions asked. Best of all -- we were not charged a single penny! In the United States, such a visit could have cost us anywhere from several hundred dollars to over a thousand. To top it off, my grandson's prescription was filled for under $10!

The way I see it, we've got those who can afford insurance and health care; then we have 46 million Americans who cannot; then we have those who already struggle to pay for health care and are having to deal with rising costs; and finally, the insurance companies, who are more concerned with bottom line profits for their shareholders rather than the needs of their customers. Meanwhile,we are distracted and stalled by the question of whether or not the government has a right to step in.

My question is, if the government doesn't step in at this point, who will?

And following that, what are governments for if not to safeguard the vital interests of its citizens? Let's just assume that none of us know what the best exact plan is. But the fact remains that we need to get in step with all other advanced Western countries and provide universal health care to everyone in America -- and I mean everyone. I don't care if they are citizens or not. The only consideration the hospital had for my grandson when we were in Italy was whether or not he was a member of the human race.

We need to move health care out of profit-driven profession to a true enterprise founded on compassion, for all -- and in case "for all" doesn't say it, let me spell it out: I mean this to include the less fortunate amongst us.

Let's face it: the present dysfunctional health care system wrecks lives! If you are not covered for a medical emergency -- and as it stands, no one knows if they are covered until they have a need -- people have lost everything they have for a single serious health incident. You don't have to go very far from home to know about that.

For example, years ago, my mother was in serious need of health care. She had no insurance. My brother and I both were happy and willing to help but neither of us was prepared to assume the full brunt of the kind of assistance she needed. The problem was that with the present profit-based system, if the government knew we were contributing any financial support, they would cut off their assistance entirely. As a result, we had to go and visit her in a very depressing facility located on the outskirts of San Diego.

My son has been a nurse for decades and enjoys a hefty salary. I'm happy for him, but it doesn't go unnoticed by me that because a few nurses must receive such a generous pay and benefits, the hospitals are understaffed and a patient's single overnight stay could cost from $15,000 to $20,000! It's obscene, the service is usually barely adequate -- ask anyone who has had a medical emergency.

My son recently commented on the paperwork nurses must fill out for every patient. More is added each month. For instance, when he admits a patient, he has to fill out a form for every article the patient has when they are admitted. This is repeated when the patient leaves. Multiply that by 25 or 40 papers for every patient, and you can see why health care givers are mostly standing behind a desk or nursing station when you visit a hospital rather than assisting the large number of patients supposedly under their care! 

At present we hope and rely on insurance companies paying for such care, but the reality is, we are all paying for it. The hospitals have to charge so much because they are mandated to not turn anyone away because of lack of funds. "Lack of funds" means that they are entitled to take every penny you have until you really lack funds.

Further, everyone should realize that under a universal health care program, you still have the option to pay for whatever services may not be provided. It's worth paying more taxes to have it; consider it, if you will, a charitable contribution, if necessary. In any case, it would be cheaper than the present single payer system.

Perhaps, like me, you have seen one or more of the many misleading emails that are being circulated around the health care issue. One entitled "Health Care Reform or Government Take Over?" urges the gullible to distrust the government's intentions to reform American health care. (I suggest that any statements that are made pro or con be checked with an impartial web organization such as http://www.politifact.com/. )

When you receive bogus emails like the one mentioned above, consider how powerful the insurance and for-profit medical lobbies are, how they have congresspeople in their pockets, and how willing they are to spend millions on negative propaganda to prevent universal health care from happening in the United States.

My only fear at present is that the final bill will be so compromised that it will not accomplish what it is intended for. Can you even imagine how and why a newly elected president would go head-to-head with the most powerful lobby in the world, staking his reputation on doing what he and most Americans believe is the right thing to do?

President Obama is not writing the bill, he is charging Congress with that task and will sign it after reviewing it. I can assure you that he would not sign a bill that reflected the stupid and unfounded charges represented by many anti-health care emails that are circulating.

These are my own personal arguments for universal health care in this country. I invite you to share your thoughts on this topic in the comments section of this blog.

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