The Common Good
December 2005

The System is Broken

by David Batstone | December 2005

We are stuck with half-baked measures to contain runaway medical costs.

The System Is Broken

Health-care costs are killing Americans. Sadly, we lack the courage to swallow the bitter pill of radical reform.

No one is immune from this long-standing crisis, not even the church. The national newspaper The United Methodist Reporter ran a feature way back in 1990 detailing how health-care costs would overwhelm the financial operations of its denomination. Projecting the rate of rise of health-care insurance for United Methodist clergy, the Reporter showed that within a decade the cost of health care would outstrip the income received from the annual giving of what was then a 10-million-member global denomination.

In 2004, the Reporter followed up its investigation of 14 years earlier to determine whether it had overstated its case. Unfortunately, the projections were more-or-less on target. Although the United Methodist Church had developed a series of creative and often desperate means to keep its health-care costs under control—including wellness programs, cutting off high-risk clergy, and increasing the payment burden on its limited-income retired clergy, whose original work contract promised them paid health care in retirement—most annual conferences still find themselves in extreme distress over the cost of health care.

Surely you share distress over rising medical costs no matter where you work; that is, if your employer even covers your medical expenses.

Employer-sponsored health insurance is becoming an unbearable burden for employers, according to the annual health coverage survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust. The report shows that premiums for job-based health insurance are rising 9.2 percent on average nationwide in 2005, about three times the general rate of inflation.

More worrisome, the slice of companies even providing health benefits to employees dropped to 60 percent in 2005, down from 69 percent in 2000.

SO I DON’T BLAME my employer for the bigger bite out of my paycheck for health-care insurance, nor should you. Clearly the system is broken, which makes it all the more frustrating that the U.S. Congress consistently rejects attempts to more tightly manage health care. Although a single-payer, universal health-care plan works fine and dandy in most European countries, Australia, and Canada, a high-powered medical care lobby in Washington, D.C., fights any attempt to reform the medical care system. So we are stuck with half-baked measures to contain runaway medical costs, and they consistently fail.

Here’s the truth: the United States cannot rely solely on private-sector insurance. According to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study, “the United States spent $5,635 per person on health [in 2003], more than twice the OECD average and around 10 times more than the lowest-spending countries, Mexico and Turkey.”

It’s good news that business leaders are engaging lawmakers in a new conversation around health insurance that transcends traditional conservative-liberal labels. The fact that skyrocketing health-care costs make U.S. employers less competitive in the global marketplace will be the factor that will tip the scale in favor of a dramatic revision of the health-care system. One clear sign of the times: The Wall Street Journal recently ran a feature reporting that more U.S. companies are looking at Canada as a possible site to relocate their operations due to more affordable health-care costs up north. Faith-based activists working on health-care reform ought to think more creatively about building alliances with the private sector.

Howard Schultz, the chair of Starbucks, recently made the jolting revelation before a congressional committee that Starbucks will spend more on health care for its employees than on raw materials it uses to percolate its coffee. Starbucks claims to have paid double-digit increases in health insurance costs over the past four years. “It’s completely non-sustainable,” even for companies like his “that want to do the right thing,” Schultz told a gathering of U.S. senators.

That’s a justice message that resonates across America today.

David Batstone is executive editor at Sojourners.

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