Why Do We Need Health Care Reform? Don’t Ask George Will

One of the things I hope to do with my blog is to call out misleading statements and statistics, outright lies and illogical assertions by opponents of meaningful health care reform—and to rat out the front groups that insurers and other special interests are funding to kill reform or, failing that, shape it to their benefit.

I’m starting with a biggie, conservative author and columnist George Will, who suggests in his June 28 column in The Washington Post that, because of the complexity and expense of reforming the American health care system, maybe we would be better off just leaving well enough alone.

Well enough? For him, maybe. He’s got a great gig at the Post and as a TV network pundit, and he has sold lots of books, so he probably doesn’t have to worry, as most other Americans do, about being just one layoff away from joining the 50 million other men, women and children in the ranks of the uninsured. And even if the Post gave him a pink slip this afternoon, chances are he has stashed enough away that he can afford to shell out the nearly $13,000 that the average annual premium for decent family coverage costs these days (and that was in 2007).

The median household income in this country is just about $50,000. I’m betting it has been a few years since Will faced paying more than a fourth of his family’s annual income—before taxes—just to cover the health insurance premiums. More and more of us also face paying thousands more of our hard-earned dollars in out-of-pocket expenses before the coverage we pay so dearly for actually kicks in. If Will and other critics of real reform just did a little simple math, they would understand why the number of people without insurance is so high and growing so rapidly, and why at least 25 million more of us are now under-insured.

After telling us we might live to regret trying to reform our dysfunctional non-system, Will makes this assertion:

“Most Americans do want different health care: They want 2009 medicine at 1960 prices.”

Yeah, that would be nice, and it sure makes for a great quip, but no one I know expects that. Maybe he knows “most Americans” better than I do, but I doubt it. Instead, I suspect he sees the world in much the same way insurance company executives see it from their spacious offices, the windows of their chauffeur-driven limos and the corporate jets that fly them comfortably over “most Americans.” When you’re at that altitude, it’s hard to get a real fix on what most Americans want, much less what so many of them so desperately need.

To be fair and perfectly honest, I saw the world that way too for most of the 20 years I worked inside the insurance industry. The more money I made and the more perks I was given, the less I thought about the hardships many people face who are not as privileged. It took seeing thousands of people standing in the rain in long lines to get care in a barn just a few miles from where I grew up to finally get it.

It is true, as Will notes, that many Americans enrolled in employer-sponsored health insurance plans have been able to rely on their employers to pay the lion’s share of the premiums. What is also true, but not mentioned in his column, is that fewer and fewer Americans can get coverage through their employers these days, and that of those who can, most are now having to pay a larger share of the premiums and much higher out-of-pocket expenses.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal story, the number of small employers offering coverage has dropped from 61 percent to 38 percent since 1993. And the way insurers and employers are dealing with medical inflation is to shift more of the financial burden onto the shoulders of working men and women.

Insurers and their ideological allies, like Grace Marie Turner of the Galen Institute and Betsy McCauaghey of the Hudson Institute, both of whom Will cites as experts in his column and both of whose organizations are corporate funded, say this is a good thing because, they contend, Americans have been insulated for far too long from the real costs of health care.

That’s easy for someone to say who has never had to file for bankruptcy, as millions of Americans have, because the insurance coverage they were counting on didn’t come close to covering their medical bills when they got sick or had an accident. And it’s easy for a rich, famous and out-of-touch columnist to callously content that all Americans really want is 2009 medicine at 1960 prices, so let’s just call the whole thing off.

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