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National NOW Times >> Winter 2003/2004 >> Article

The Health Care Crisis for Women—There Is a Solution

Imagine yourself in a setting where there are no huge monthly (and continually increasing) health insurance premiums to be paid, where you can select the health care providers you want, where prescription drugs are sold at affordable prices, where there is health care coverage even if you lose your job and where you are assured that doctors, hospitals and long-term care facilities are available when you really need them.

And, as you move into old age and require numerous prescription drugs and extensive medical attention, you will have no worries about becoming destitute. You need not fear having to sell your car or your home or cash out your life insurance policies in order to qualify for low-income health care assistance. You don't have to contemplate cutting back on your horrendously expensive medication because you just cannot afford to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to stay well. Seems like an implausible paradise, doesn't it?

But for hundreds of millions of people in other developed nations, this picture—to varying degrees—is the world in which they live. These countries (Canada, many in Europe and elsewhere) have recognized the fundamental human need for affordable medical care and have developed systems to assure that most, if not all, of their citizens' health care needs are met. These universal plans are financed through government revenues or other special sources. In many cases, these governments also control the price of prescription medications sold inside their borders. Many of these nations might not experience the level of wealth and medical technological development found in the U.S., but their residents enjoy the profound benefit of assured lifetime health care.

The Prescription Drug Debacle

The recently passed Medicare prescription drug legislation—a "reform" that removes the government guarantee of health care coverage—is emblematic of the mess that U.S. health care has become. Seniors who are lured away from traditional Medicare to obtain a modest prescription drug benefit will face a possible loss of coverage under other plans, spotty and undependable assistance in the new one, predictably increasing drug prices and a hopelessly complicated array of decisions. Those staying in government-run Medicare are likely to see premiums and other health care costs rise, eventually followed by an end to Medicare because of an artificial fiscal crisis caused by newly-imposed spending caps.

Women are the majority of the 40 million Medicare beneficiaries and their well-being under the new plan is at great risk. If you are a woman over 75, you are likely to be single (widowed, divorced or never-married) and very poor, with two or more chronic health conditions which require at least three prescription medications. Where will these women go when traditional Medicare collapses?

One in Three Uninsured

There are almost 44 million people in the U.S. without health insurance, and it has been reported that about 75 million were without coverage at some point during 2001-2002. The total number of uninsured now exceeds the cumulative population of 24 states and the District of Columbia, or one out of every three people under age 65.

The relatively new State Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) was an important step in providing coverage to moderately low-income children, but the program is not reaching all eligible youngsters and is facing cutbacks in at least 22 states due to fiscal shortfalls. Additionally, Medicaid funding is being reduced for low-income families by states that see nothing but red ink in their budgets.

With health insurance costs for employers doubling—in some cases within a mere two-year period—and astronomically high insurance costs for unemployed or self-employed workers, the crisis we thought was behind us in the 90s has returned with a vengeance. At the same time, prescription drugs prices in recent years have been rising at a whopping 17 percent annually.

Meanwhile, huge for-profit interest groups spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contributions to election campaigns, a fleet of lobbyists on Capitol Hill and the manipulation of public opinion through the media. As a result of this enormous influence on public policy exerted by large insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and hospital and medical associations, most politicial leaders don't have the will to make change.

What we need is a comprehensive plan that will make health care services and prescription medication affordable and accessible by everyone and be supported by a progressive system of financing that mirrors an individual's or families' ability to pay. Where are our political leaders?

Can Feminists Solve The Problem?

Opinion polls show that lack of access to health care ranks among the top three concerns of voters. It seems obvious that the answer is electing lawmakers who will resist selling themselves to insurance and drug companies and instead work to bring about a comprehensive solution to universal access, while addressing rising costs of care. There are lots of good ideas for expanding health care coverage to all and financing it fairly. NOW supports a universal, single-payer government-run system such as Canada's. NOW's June-August 2003 Equality Report described a National Health Plan proposal from two Harvard professors and backed by three former Surgeons General. Proposals from progressive members of Congress include extending the traditional Medicare program to anyone of any age who wants it as well as the single-payer system.

Women have been at the forefront of every important progressive social movement throughout U.S. history. In 2004, a majority of voters may finally be ready to declare, "We've had enough—things have to change!" We must be ready to educate, organize, register and mobilize around this important political goal. If we are to win, we must change the face of politics in the White House and in Congress.

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