Due to poverty and Medicaid bungling, on 28 February, a 12-year-old boy died when an untreated dental problem led to a severe brain infection. An $80 tooth extraction could have prevented his death.
This happened in the United States of America where the chief executive of one of the top two private health providers, UnitedHealth, was paid an annual total of $10 million in salary and bonuses until he was forced to resign last October over a stock-option backdating scheme that would have given him $1 billion more in paper gains.
Forty-seven million - more than one-six of Americans - are without health coverage. It has been a long haul getting Americans to take this issue seriously, but they have at last come out of the woodwork. According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll [pdf], 64 percent of the population now believe the federal government should guarantee health insurance for every American. Here are some other findings of the survey:
- 89% are very or somewhat concerned about their future healthcare costs
- 60% of those without insurance report that someone in their household has gone without care because of the cost
- 47% say a government-run system of universal healthcare would be better than the current private system with many uninsured (38%)
- Almost 80% say universal health coverage is more important than extending the Bush tax cuts
- 60% would be willing to pay more in taxes to ensure universal healthcare
President Bush's solution to the healthcare crisis is a tax deduction for people to buy private insurance. California Governor Arnold Schwarznegger would force employers to provide coverage or pay into a fund. And presidential contender, former North Carolina senator John Edwards has put forth a similar nationwide plan. All involve retaining for-profit insurers which would effectively expand their customer base creating more profits and, presumably, even higher salaries for executives.
Phil Mattera, in an informative and clear overview of America's health insurance industry at alternet.org, writes of the top-tier health insurers (UnitedHealth, Wellpoint Inc., Aetna, Humana, Cigna and Health Net):
"...the big carriers simply accumulate more power over healthcare providers and patients, using it to their own advantage.
"While millions remain uninsured or underinsured, the industry's profits swell. Last year, the top six health insurance companies had combined profits of more than $10 billion. What's amazing is that they netted so much after spending prodigious amounts on marketing and administration.
"In 2006 Wellpoint alone burned up nearly $9 billion in such costs - nearly one-quarter of what it paid out in actual benefits. By contrast, in Canada's government-run single-payer system, administration accounts for only about 3 percent of total costs."
Obviously, with a single-payer system (universal coverage), there is no need for either marketing or profits. It will cost us all more in taxes to cover everyone, but it won't be as much as people are spending now and no one will go without treatment or, if it is done right, without preventive care.
There is one other important point about the disgrace of America's for-profit health insurance system that Mr. Mattera makes in his alternet piece:
"...the fundamental conflict in the industry [is] the clash between maximizing gains for executives and shareholders, and the need of its customers for services that are often a matter of life and death. Public officials should abandon the mission of saving commercial insurance and devote themselves instead to creating a healthcare system that substitutes the public interest for private profit." [emphasis added]
Many years ago, I had a dentist with a mordant sense of humor who said, "Nobody ever died of teeth." Now we know differently. It will do everyone who has been wakened to the healthcare crisis good, as we follow the weeding out process of presidential contenders in the coming months, to keep in mind that 12-year-boy in Maryland who died needlessly of teeth.