Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Harold Ford Jr. Fighting For Affordable Healthcare For All

One of the most important issues in this U.S. Senate race is healthcare. Not only because our state recently saw thousands of people lose their healthcare with the reform of TennCare, but also because on a national level our healthcare system is subpar, to say the least.

In the coming years, the U.S. Senate has a real chance to pass reform in which everyone can afford quality healthcare. However, in order to make it happen, we must elect people who have political will and people who will fight for the people instead of the powerful.

Harold Ford Jr. is one of those people we must elect. As shown in the following position paper, Ford is dedicated to making sure every Tennessean has affordable healthcare:

Affordable Healthcare Coverage for All

By Harold Ford, Jr.

As a nation, we spend $2 trillion each year on healthcare. Yet, when you look at the facts, we are not getting much bang for the buck. Forty-five million Americans and more than 700,000 Tennesseans – 1 in 9 of our neighbors – are uninsured, and the problem keeps getting worse.

We already pay more for healthcare per person than other countries, but we receive less access and suffer worse health outcomes. In fact, America stands alone in the industrialized world in failing to provide access to healthcare to all of our citizens. In Tennessee, the problem is particularly serious. We are among the least healthy states in the country, ranking 48th in overall quality of health by the United Health Foundation in 2005.

The problem for many is clear: as rising healthcare costs have outpaced wages, too many Tennesseans cannot afford to keep their families healthy. The average yearly health insurance premium for a family of four is more than $10,000. For too many of our friends and family, this is money they just do not have.

The problem is not limited to families; as healthcare costs continue to skyrocket, more and more of our businesses’ bottom lines are being eaten up by health insurance premiums for their employees. For example, our nation’s automakers spend more on healthcare than they do on steel to make their cars. For the men and women working at the General Motors plant in Spring Hill, this is troubling news; it means our companies have a harder time competing with their foreign counterparts.

On top of the appalling number of uninsured and the tens of millions more underinsured, our current system fails patients by subjecting them to limited access to care and layers of burdensome paperwork and inefficiencies. Patchwork fixes will no longer do the job. Instead, we need to completely reform our current healthcare system.

The next American healthcare system should be guided by 4 principles:
  • Access to healthcare for all. No Tennessean – rich or poor, young or old – should be without healthcare. And no business should be bankrupted for taking care of its employees. When you buy a house, you are required to get homeowner’s insurance. When you own a car, you are required to get car insurance. It is time to apply the same rationale to health insurance. Instead of the current system – where the insured are paying for themselves and the uninsured – we need to move to a system where adults accept responsibility to obtain coverage for themselves and their children. In short, it is time to give universal healthcare coverage, but only if people are willing to accept universal responsibility.
  • A redesigned primary healthcare system. Doctors understand more than anyone how the system is broken, which is why they are coming together to figure out ways to fix it. Primary care is critical because it helps fix small problems before they grow into something bigger. Understanding this, family physicians have developed the Future of Family Medicine Project, which advocates a new model of patient care to address the healthcare crisis. We need to encourage this kind of problem-solving and give doctors the tools they need to put their answers into practice.
  • Tort reform. Guaranteeing fundamental access for all requires fair and proportionate compensation to patients and families injured by doctors. Too many frivolous claims are filed against doctors who did nothing wrong. We need to set up tribunals with qualified review boards in our court system to screen claims for legitimacy before they go to trial. This will help decrease costs and ensure that all Tennesseans have access to the care they need, whether they live in Unicoi, Davidson or Dyer County.
  • Use Technology to Improve Healthcare Quality. It is not enough to change how we pay for healthcare; we also need to change how we deliver it. That is why I am co- sponsoring the 21st Century Health Information Act, which has been championed by Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, to use health information technology to transform the health care system by preventing medical errors, improving the use of best practices in medicine, reducing unnecessary duplication, streamlining administration, creating vast new research and public health monitoring opportunities and radically changing quality reporting.
Of course, forcing people to buy health insurance makes no sense unless we make it affordable. With increased personal responsibility to ensure that everyone obtains coverage comes shared responsibility to ensure that everyone can afford coverage. Our plan features a multi-tiered strategy to lower costs for the three basic groups of uninsured who need our help:
  • Those who are eligible for Medicaid but don’t sign up. We should set up low-cost portals at hospitals and health centers to register them and begin addressing their needs. When someone eligible for Medicaid comes in for treatment, they will automatically be registered.
  • Those who can afford coverage but decline it. Usually, these people decline coverage because they are in good health and consider coverage too costly. But this means when they get sick, the public safety net picks up the tab for them. This cycle should be stopped. Insurers claim they can provide insurance plans at less than half the rate of today’s standard $500 a month for an individual. The federal government should work with insurance companies to design high-deductible, low-premium plans to serve these people. States like Massachusetts and New York are already doing this. We need to take this successful program to the national level so the people of Tennessee can benefit as well.
  • Finally, those who cannot afford health insurance but who do not qualify for Medicaid, either. These people deserve a system with sliding scale subsidies to provide affordable coverage with smaller subsidies as incomes rise. For people making three times the poverty line (individuals earning more than $30,000 and families of four earning more than $54,000), the subsidies would phase out.
  • This kind of plan has already been put in place in Massachusetts, where a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature put their political differences aside for the greater good. It is this kind of bipartisan leadership that we need more of in Washington.
Covering the uninsured is critical. But we can even do more to lower the cost of care for everyone — including workers and employers who can afford it now. Three specific steps will help achieve this goal:
  • Association Health Plans. Small businesses in every community are being driven out of business by the high cost of healthcare. We should reverse this trend by allowing small businesses to pool their resources and buy health insurance for their workers at a lower price. Small businesses have always driven our economy and led in innovation. Helping them to achieve the same kind of negotiating leverage as large companies will promote entrepreneurship and keep our nation competitive.
  • Tax Credits for Employers. We should give incentives to employers who assume responsibility by providing minimum levels of coverage to their employees. Tax credits in exchange for coverage will help make sure companies do not shirk their responsibilities and look to Medicaid to cover their employees’ health needs. Government should be in the business of rewarding business leaders who encourage and incentivize their employees to maintain healthy lifestyles. In the end, it will save lives, reduce costs and make us more competitive.
  • Allow Medicare and Medicaid to Negotiate Directly With Drug Companies. It is inexcusable that we do not allow Medicare – the country’s biggest purchaser of prescription drugs – to use its negotiating power to get cheaper prices for our seniors. Companies like International Paper, Eastman Chemical and Nissan here in Tennessee buy their supplies in bulk; why should the federal government be any different? We already allow the Veterans Administration to negotiate with drug companies, and it is long past time to let Medicare and Medicaid to the same. By letting Medicare and Medicaid use their negotiating power to get lower prices, we can reduce the burden of prescription drug prices on our healthcare system.
As the wealthiest nation in the world, we have a moral obligation to use our assets and abilities to also make it the healthiest. That would be a legacy of which we could all be proud.