The Common Good

Three Keys to Reforming Health Care: T.R. Reid's The Healing of America

A couple of weeks ago I previewed T.R. Reid's The Healing of America. I'm happy to see that today it is #18 on Amazon's sales ranking, #11 on Publishers Weekly's hardcover nonfiction best-seller list, and #6 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list. With Congress deadlocked on health-care reform and President Obama scheduled to speak to the nation about health care tomorrow night, this is a book everyone should read. Immediately.

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Here are three of Reid's most important points:

1. "The primary issue for any health care system is a moral one." If we believe no one should die for want of access to health care, we can find a way to provide care for all. If we believe health care is a commodity like TVs and automobiles, we can continue to exclude those who can't pay. "All the developed countries I looked at provide health coverage for every resident, old or young, rich or poor. This is the underlying moral principle of the health care system in every rich country -- every one, that is, except the United States."

2. It is possible to improve health care and save money at the same time. Hey, those other rich nations that provide health care to everybody spend about half as much per capita as the United States spends, and their citizens also live longer and enjoy better health. If we are willing to study the ways other developed nations handle health care, we're smart enough to devise an approach that suits our needs.

And by the way, we don't need to fear "socialized medicine," whatever that may be. As Reid points out, "the term was popularized by a public relations firm working for the American Medical Association in 1947 to disparage President Truman's proposal for a national health care system. It was a label, at the dawn of the cold war, meant to suggest that anybody advocating universal access to health care must be a communist." In fact, successful health-care systems in other countries have widely varying approaches, ranging from public funding and public health-care provision (Britain) to private insurance and private providers (Germany, Japan, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan). In fact, some European systems are considerably more private than ours.

Nor do we need to fear loss of choice: almost all developed nations allow more choice of provider than our insurance companies currently permit, and some also have more insurance companies to choose among.

3. The biggest source of waste in American health care comes from our approach to insurance: "20 cents of every dollar people pay in premiums for health insurance doesn't buy any health care." Insurance per se isn't the problem. Many developed countries, like the United States, rely on competing private insurance companies to pay health-care bills. There is just one major difference between their systems and ours: most of our private insurance is for-profit, and all of their insurance that pays for basic health care is not for-profit.

Reid does not discuss the army of lobbyists currently working feverishly to sway public opinion and persuade Congress to veto any significant reform, nor does he mention the enormous contributions made by health-care lobbyists over the last five years to key senators and members of Congress. His book was completed before Wendell Potter, former head of corporate communications at CIGNA, blew the whistle on common unfair industry practices, so he doesn't mention Potter either. Likewise, he is silent about possibly excessive executive compensation at health insurance companies.

Reid is not concerned with abuse and corruption in the health-care industry so much as with flaws in the system itself. Even operating at its best and most honest, a for-profit insurance system cannot provide health care for everybody as cheaply as a not for-profit private company or a public system. This is counter-intuitive to free-market advocates, but Reid backs up his assertions with figures: contrast 20% administrative costs in America with 6% in Canada, 5% in France and Britain, and less than 2% in Taiwan.

1. Again (this is Reid's most important point): "The primary issue for any health care system is a moral one." If we have the will to care for all our people, we will find a way. I was thinking about that Sunday while listening to the day's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary:

The rich and the poor have this in common:
the LORD is the maker of them all.
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
for they share their bread with the poor.
Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate;
for the LORD pleads their cause
and despoils of life those who despoil them.
--from Proverbs 22

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? ... If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
--from James 2

My PhotoLaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust.

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