By Clarence Hightower, Ph.D.
The Anti-Poverty Soldier
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Feb. 29, 2016) — For a good part of the last two decades, the issue of healthcare reform has either been at or near center stage in America’s political discourse.
As the former First Lady of the United States, current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made the passage of healthcare reform her primary policy initiative in the mid-1990s. As a result of her proposal, the future of healthcare in America became one of the defining campaign debates during the 1994 mid-term elections.
Additional attempts at healthcare reform resulted in the passing of HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) in 1996, as well as the establishment of SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) approximately one year later. While these two laws provided additional protections to many workers and their families, the wrangling over more extensive healthcare proposals continued to linger into the 21st century.
The debate over healthcare reform gained increasing steam just prior to the 2008 presidential campaign, when documentary filmmaker Michael Moore released Sicko. The controversial film explored the United States’ healthcare system, particularly the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and predictably incited a heavily partisan squabble regarding the future direction of healthcare in America.
Leading up to the 2008 election, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) called for universal healthcare while Senator John McCain proposed an open-market system including what he termed a “Guaranteed Access Plan.” Not long after his election as the 44th President of the United States, Obama began pursuing his healthcare agenda, which ultimately led to the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) in 2010.
Nearly six years after becoming law and a full two years after its major provisions have been implemented; the PPACA has enabled millions of previously uninsured Americans to gain health coverage, many through state and federally operated insurance exchanges. Of course, the establishment of the PPACA remains one of, if not the most, contentious pieces of legislation to be passed by this administration with constant threats of repeal.
Regardless of where one might fall when it comes to healthcare reform and the subsequent debate, I wanted to use this space to help shed light on another aspect of the healthcare question. This particular issue is negatively affecting millions of Americans each year, including those who already have comprehensive health insurance plans.
In an enlightening January 2016 article, Margo Sanger-Katz, domestic correspondent for the New York Times, writes that “the surest way to enjoy the peace of mind that comes with having health insurance: Don’t get sick.” Sanger-Katz cites a joint study between California’s Kaiser Family Foundation and the New York Times that suggests that one out of every five insured Americans under the age of 65 struggles to pay their medical bills.
The author further notes that in the last 20 years or so, Americans have been expected to “pay an increasingly greater share of their bills out of pocket through rising deductibles and co-payments.”
I personally have heard a number of people remark recently that their insurance premiums continue to go up each year, while the percentage of their medical expenses covered by insurance seems to decrease. In fact, recent data from the federal court system shows that each year more Americans (approximately two million) are forced into bankruptcy due to unpaid medical bills than for any other reason.
In her article, Sanger-Katz goes on to share the heartbreaking stories of Americans whose lives have been devastated by these trends, including that of a 58-year-old man from southern Minnesota. After a major operation, this man was forced to cash in a retirement account to cover his out-of-pocket costs. Now he has made the decision to stay away from the doctor’s office altogether, noting that his wife’s retirement savings had also been exhausted to pay her medical expenses after she succumbed to cancer.
Is that a decision that any of us should have to make? Sanger-Katz concludes her piece by stating that research demonstrates “medical bills don’t just keep people from filling prescriptions and scheduling doctor’s visits. They can also prompt deep financial and personal sacrifices, affecting their housing, employment, credit and daily lives.”
I believe that health care is a basic human right of every American citizen, and for that matter, every citizen of the world. And yet, I also believe that those who have health care shouldn’t be forced into financial ruin when they become sick. Nor should they face the even more perverse quandary of choosing between financial ruin and death.
Dr. Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.