It’s clear we have a problem, and I think the problem mostly a health insurance problem.  45 million Americans have no health insurance.  Our current system wastes $450 billion each year on redundant administrative costs.[i]  The current system excludes people with pre-existing medical conditions and limited economic resources.  The current health insurance system is broken.

            A college friend, Lois Quam, used to work in the health insurance industry.  She was an executive at UnitedHealth, leaving the industry two years ago; she’s no longer required to spouting the company line, but she is an expert in the field and knows how the current (broken) system works.

            In a recent interview,[ii] she noted that as recently as a few decades ago, tying health insurance to employment made some sense.  People worked with one employer for their careers.  That’s not true anymore.  Now people change employers often and have several different careers in a lifetime.  The current health insurance system is broken.

            As health insurance premiums skyrocket, employers offer less and less coverage.  Too often, employees end up under insured and the unemployed end up uninsured.  The current health insurance system is broken.

            Yet, isn’t access to basic health care a fundamental human right that should be available to everyone regardless of their economic resources?  Shouldn’t everyone have access to health care regardless of their ability to pay?  Our current broken system has created an underclass, relegating the poor and underemployed to a second-class status that receives second-class care.

            “When wealthy and middle-class people have to rely on the same health system as the poor, as they do throughout Europe,” writes Gary Dorrien, “they use their political power to make sure[iii] it’s a decent system.”

            The best way to make the wealthy and the poor part of the same health care system is to give everyone the same health insurance.  In other words, the best way to insure equality in health care is with a single-payer health insurance system.

            But a nation-wide single-payer program is not going to be part of what comes out of the current efforts to reform our health insurance system.  The insurance companies are too powerful and politically aggressive to allow themselves to lose their market share and their profit margins.

            The best we can hope for this year is a public Medicare-like option that competes with private plans.  According to Dorrien, “this reform would save only 15 percent of the $350 billion insurance overhead costs that converting to single-payer would achieve.”[iv]  But already the insurance industry has geared up to prevent a public option because they don’t want to compete with one.

            Even Lois Quam, the former insurance executive, recognized the need for a public option:  “I was with a woman in Becker County last week who talked about how important MinnesotaCare has been to her family.  And I hear from people, age 61, 62, 63, who really wish they were 65 and they could get into Medicare.  The very reason Medicare was created in the ’60s, of course, was that the private health insurance market wasn’t offering affordable coverage to seniors.  So I think a public plan makes a lot of sense, and I would like to see that as a part of eventual health-care reform.”[v]

            “There is not a religiously mandated or God-ordained system of health care or insurance,” writes Jim Wallis.  “Luke might have been a physician, but he never commented on whether computerizing medical records should be a national priority.  You won’t find in the Bible policy conclusions about health-care savings accounts, personal versus employer-provided insurance, single payer public systems, or private insurance plans.”[vi]

            However, Wallis[vii] points out, as we debate a reform to our health insurance and health care system, we need to keep three things in mind: 

            (1) We must speak the truth.  “What we need is an honest and fair debate with good information, not sabotage of reform by half-truths and misinformation.”

            (2) We must make sure everyone has access to health insurance.  “Seeing your child sick is a horrible feeling; seeing your child sick and not having the resources to do something about it is a societal sin.”

            And (3) we must control costs, making health insurance and health care affordable.  “An estimated 60 percent of bankruptcies this year will be due to medical bills.  Of those declaring bankruptcy as a result of medical bills, 75 percent have health insurance.  The extreme cost of medical care stems from varied sources.  Some comes from malpractice lawsuits, some from insurance companies with high overhead and entire divisions of employees hired to find ways to deny benefits.  Some people who thought they were insured have found out that their benefits were terminated retroactively because the insurer decided there was a pre-existing condition.  In the end, some are paying too much for care and others are making too much in the current system.”

            People of faith must engage the debate – civilly, respectfully, thoughtfully.  We must engage the system and speak up for our values – the values of humanity, of life, and of justice.  Please join me.

Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

[i] Gary Dorrien, “Health care fix,” The Christian Century, July 14, 2009, page 12.

[ii] Casey Selix, Former UnitedHealth exec Lois Quam supports public option (dated August 13, 2009) (15 August 2009).

[iii] Dorrien, op cit.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Selix, op cit.

[vi] Jim Wallis, Hearts & Minds: Three Moral Issues of Health Care, (15 August 2009).

[vii] Ibid.