This Memorial Day, we might pause to remember those who have died in Oregon for lack of health insurance. As Chris Lowe notes on the Health Care for All Oregon webpage, "A 2009 estimate by Physicians for a National Health Program- connected doctors was that there were about 560 such deaths in Oregon that year. The annual order of magnitude is probably the same today. In the next few years it may decline a bit due to OHP expansion and Cover Oregon coverage, but there will still be hundreds of such deaths per year."
Indeed, since the ACA will cover about half of those previously uninsured, we can expect that number to drop by half.
So perhaps next year only about 280 people will die in Oregon because of lack of health insurance. Bummer if you or yours are among those thrown under the bus, but hey, it's still an improvement, right?
There probably won't be many fewer bankruptcies because of medical costs--in fact, there may even be more than the 1000 each month in Oregon. According to a Harvard study looking at data from 2007, in about 60 percent of personal bankruptcies, medical costs played a significant role, and in about 75 percent of those cases, the people involved were insured. As one of the co-authors of the Harvard study, Dr. Stephanie Woolhandler, has observed, "the federal health law will make the problem of gaps in coverage much more serious because the required insurance policies under the legislation are extremely skimpy."
Yet the premiums are often remarkably high. So where is all that money going, since it's apparently not going to pay for medical costs? Well, if you're insured through Providence Health & Services, some undisclosed amount of it paid the Portland Timbers for naming rights to the Major League Soccer team’s home stadium now called Providence Park.
Private insurance overhead and profit , on average, fluctuates between 12% and 14% nationally. This figure is somewhat lower than the 16-20% at many of the big insurers because it includes self-insured plans of many big employers that have overhead of about 6-7%. On the other hand, overhead in the individual market is often substantially higher than 20%, and in some cases above 30%.
Why is all this administrating so spendy? Compensation for executives accounts for much of it: the CEOS of Fortune 500 health insurance companies made an average of over 13 million dollars each last year, up more than 2 million from the year before. No doubt they deserved it for increasing shareholder value. The so-called affordable care act has been a boon for insurance companies: for the first time, Americans are legally obligated to buy a private product.
In contrast to these figures, Medicare has an overhead of about 2% , and last year its top administrator was paid less than $200,000.
Now, you might think that single-payer Medicare for all is a pipe dream, that we missed the chance to create a system that provided health care for everyone, instead of mandating that everyone give money to insurance companies.
But you'd be wrong.
Vermont has a planned 2017 launch of the nation's first universal healthcare system, a sort of modified Medicare-for-all, that will cover everyone in the state and reduce costs. (Remember five years ago when they became the first state to permit same-sex marriage?)
One of the key steps they took in developing their plan was to commission a study that explored the possible options, costs, and strategies for providing healthcare for everyone in the state. The Oregon legislature has approved a similar study, but has not provided funding for it. So the Healthcare for All Oregon Education Fund is collecting donations to find the study, which will provide essential information to give legislators and voters the confidence to take action.
If you're interested in finding out more, you can turn out Friday June 6th to hear James Haslam, Executive Director of the Vermont Workers Center, who will be in Portland to provide advice and inspiration. The event begins at 6 pm at the SEIU 503 Ballroom, at 6401 SE Foster.
You can also register for the Health Care for All Oregon Membership Meeting which takes place on Saturday, June 14, from 10:30 to 4:00 pm at the Portland 1st Unitarian Church, Fuller Hall, 1211 SW Main St, Portland.
This Wednesday, you can join others at Portland's City Hall at 9:15 a.m. to demand disclosure of the amount of money spent on renaming Providence Park. Wear Red to show your support for Healthcare for all Oregon.
The Healthcare for All Oregon Website--hcao.org--also has more information, as well as guides to writing to your legislators and talking with your friends and neighbors about the issue, and blank petition forms to help you gather support.
Advocates supporting the statewide effort to bring publicly funded universal health care to all Oregon residents know that the effort will not be easy. The size and power of the health care industry lobby is legendary. The struggle will require a strong and determined grassroots movement, with advocates all over the state demanding justice. But Health Care For All Oregon is working to build the infrastructure to support legislative and ballot initiative victories. Because health care should not be a commodity on the market. It is a human right.
As Lowe suggests this Memorial Day, remembering those who died for lack of health care does not in any way dishonor the military dead, or disrespect anyone else's use of the day for remembering the departed.
Others who are failed are loved ones of ex-service members. Both military service and lack of insurance are found disproportionately among lower income Americans. Veterans who may get care through the V.A. may not be able to ensure that their relatives or friends have care.
The death toll from lack of health care is also a marker for a wider realm of pain and debility, reduced quality of life, and stress and suffering for family and friends of the untreated ill, dying and dead.
In recognizing that toll, we have all the more reason to fight like hell for the living.