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Atul Gawande: How should Obama reform health care?

Roundup: Media's Take




In every industrialized nation, the movement to reform health care has begun with stories about cruelty. The Canadians had stories like the 1946 Toronto Globe and Mail report of a woman in labor who was refused help by three successive physicians, apparently because of her inability to pay. In Australia, a 1954 letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald sought help for a young woman who had lung disease. She couldn’t afford to refill her oxygen tank, and had been forced to ration her intake “to a point where she is on the borderline of death.” In Britain, George Bernard Shaw was at a London hospital visiting an eminent physician when an assistant came in to report that a sick man had arrived requesting treatment. “Is he worth it?” the physician asked. It was the normality of the question that shocked Shaw and prompted his scathing and influential 1906 play, “The Doctor’s Dilemma.” The British health system, he charged, was “a conspiracy to exploit popular credulity and human suffering.”

In the United States, our stories are like the one that appeared in the Times before Christmas. Starla Darling, pregnant and due for delivery, had just taken maternity leave from her factory job at Archway & Mother’s Cookie Company, in Ashland, Ohio, when she received a letter informing her that the company was going out of business. In three days, the letter said, she and almost three hundred co-workers would be laid off, and would lose their health-insurance coverage. The company was self-insured, so the employees didn’t have the option of paying for the insurance themselves—their insurance plan was being terminated.

“When I heard that I was losing my insurance, I was scared,” Darling told the Times. Her husband had been laid off from his job, too. “I remember that the bill for my son’s delivery in 2005 was about $9,000, and I knew I would never be able to pay that by myself.” So she prevailed on her midwife to induce labor while she still had insurance coverage. During labor, Darling began bleeding profusely, and needed a Cesarean section. Mother and baby pulled through. But the insurer denied Darling’s claim for coverage. The couple ended up owing more than seventeen thousand dollars.

The stories become unconscionable in any society that purports to serve the needs of ordinary people, and, at some alchemical point, they combine with opportunity and leadership to produce change. Britain reached this point and enacted universal health-care coverage in 1945, Canada in 1966, Australia in 1974. The United States may finally be there now. In 2007, fifty-seven million Americans had difficulty paying their medical bills, up fourteen million from 2003. On average, they had two thousand dollars in medical debt and had been contacted by a collection agency at least once. Because, in part, of underpayment, half of American hospitals operated at a loss in 2007. Today, large numbers of employers are limiting or dropping insurance coverage in order to stay afloat, or simply going under—even hospitals themselves....

On the left ... single-payer enthusiasts argue that the only coherent solution is to end private health insurance and replace it with a national insurance program. And, on the right, the free marketeers argue that the only coherent solution is to end public insurance and employer-controlled health benefits so that we can all buy our own coverage and put market forces to work.

Neither side can stand the other. But both reserve special contempt for the pragmatists, who would build around the mess we have. The country has this one chance, the idealist maintains, to sweep away our inhumane, wasteful patchwork system and replace it with something new and more rational. So we should prepare for a bold overhaul, just as every other Western democracy has. True reform requires transformation at a stroke. But is this really the way it has occurred in other countries? The answer is no. And the reality of how health reform has come about elsewhere is both surprising and instructive....
Read entire article at New Yorker

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