Sick of our Health System?
By Alice Embree
A capacity crowd filled the AFL-CIO auditorium Sunday, August 26th, to hear a panel discuss “Improving Access to Health Care in Texas: Next Steps.” The Gray Panthers of Austin sponsored the forum. Gray Panthers advocates for social and economic justice, affordable housing, universal health care, peace, education improvement, and environmental preservation under the slogan: “Age and Youth in Action!”
The forum struck a chord with citizens who see their health care costs soar while their coverage shrinks. Panel moderator Bonnie Gardner began with statistics that should alarm every reader. This country, despite its spending on health care, ranks 37th among nations in positive health care outcomes. Texas ranks 49th among the 50 states! One of four Texans has no health insurance. And, as Michael Moore’s movie “Sicko” illustrates, even those with health insurance find their coverage isn’t what they need when it matters.
The panelists examined the health of our state’s health care and prescribed remedies. The first speaker was former Judge Scott McCown of the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Judge McCown focused on the policy problems caused by rising health care costs. In 2003, the Texas legislature drastically cut state resources for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a program that uses state and federal funds to make health insurance available to low income children. The Center for Public Policy Priorities was an effective advocate for CHIP. That advocacy was rewarded during the 2007 legislative session when state funding was expanded. The legislature also improved the CHIP eligibility process and eliminated a privatized call center that proved to be a disastrous hurdle for Texans attempting to get their children insured. Unfortunately, Congressional hurdles to securing federal funds for CHIP remain and the two Texas Senators have not voted to approve federal appropriations for an expansion of CHIP.
Ann Kitchen, the second panelist, represents the Indigent Care Collaboration (ICC). The ICC is a local alliance of public and private organizations that includes the Travis County Hospital District, the People’s Community Clinic and public and private provider groups concerned about indigent care. Kitchen noted that 60% of the indigent and uninsured visits to emergency rooms in this area are for potentially preventable health emergencies. The classic example is the child with treatable asthma who doesn’t receive treatment at a less expensive clinic and ends up in an expensive emergency room, competing for attention with trauma victims. This problem strains the emergency care system. The Indigent Care Collaboration advocates a community-designed solution. ICC focuses on technology to lower costs, preventative health care through clinics, and ways of subsidizing insurance premiums, particularly for small businesses that can no longer afford group insurance plans. Kitchen said this country is trying to provide health care through insurance companies that are designed around two goals – profit and minimizing risk.
The third panelist spoke of mental health needs. Denise Brady is a lobbyist for Mental Health America. This group advocates for mental health services. Unfortunately, Texas insurance companies cover only 8 mental illnesses and often restrict treatment for those illnesses. Untreated mental disorders ripple through the community and affect a high proportion of the homeless population. Brady described the problem police have when they pick up someone in need of in-patient treatment only to find no beds available in the local state hospital. The impact of untreated mental illness on law enforcement was a powerful argument before the legislature. In 2007, the state legislature allocated $82 million for crisis mental health care. While Brady hopes funding will ultimately be increased to provide preventative health care for mental illness, she is encouraged that providers can expand services for those in crisis beginning September 1.
The final speaker was Dr. Amina Haji representing Health Care for all Texas (HCFAT). Dr. Haji said that 45 million people in this country are uninsured and lack of health care is the 5th leading cause of death in the United States. Health Care for All Texans advocates single-payer national health insurance. Specifically, they support “The U.S. National Health Insurance Act” (HR 676), now before Congress.
The United States has the highest health care spending in the world, but millions of citizens have no health insurance or are under-insured. The U.S. is the only industrialized country has tried to rely on an employers to access coverage. As costs soar, small employers opt out and large employers are increasingly uncompetitive in the global marketplace. Worse, the U.S. is the only industrial country that lets for-profit insurance companies act as middlemen in the health care system. These companies screen out patients in need and focus instead on profit and limiting their own risk. They waste millions on billing and marketing. Dr. Haji argues that replacing private insurance companies with a single-payer public program would save enough money to provide comprehensive health care. She made a persuasive argument for a publicly funded, privately administered system. Health care providers would not work for the government under the system Dr. Haji describes. Instead, the government would reimburse providers the way the Medicare system is works.
Almost everyone has a personal health care nightmare or has heard one from friends or family. This forum focused on both problems and solutions. The diagnosis was clear. We have a broken health care system. Everyone offered remedies – expansion of CHIP for low-income children, local collaborations, and expansion of mental health services. Dr. Haji advocates a major overhaul – single-payer national health insurance.
So, what can readers do? Join forces with activists from the Gray Panthers and Health Care for All Texans (HCFAT). Statewide, the Gray Panthers and HCFAT will continue to press for legislative health care initiatives already underway and will emphasize access to dental care. These groups will take action locally to ensure that the Health Care District improves its 23 Health Centers and lobby for increased health care funding form the City and County. The Gray Panthers mapped out a two year action plan on health care with coalition partners that include HCFAT, AARP and the Texas Senior Advocacy Coalition.
Appeared first in NOKOA newspaper, Austin, Texas, August 30, 2007.