Americans Choose Healthy or Wealthy in Unwise System

Feb 02, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson

A new study conducted by Harvard University researchers and published in the Health Affairs medical journal says nearly half of personal bankruptcies in the U.S. may be
the result of paying for medical bills.

The group most affected, say researchers, weren’t those without medical insurance. The majority of the debtors included in the survey – obtained from federal court filings going
back to 2001 – were middle-class home owners who had medical insurance when initially diagnosed.

Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a primary-care physician, told the Chicago Tribune, “Our study is fairly shocking.
We found that, too often, private health insurance is an umbrella that melts in the rain.”

Many of the individuals who took part in the study said high co-payments, deductibles and uncovered services were common issues they faced. In many cases, health problems eventually
led to a loss of job and subsequently the insurance that went with it.

Dr. Woolhandler believes the problem identified in the Harvard study is getting worse and health care reform is needed to not only address the needs of the uninsured but those
with employer-provided plans, as well. “It can’t be stripped-down plans that are full of loopholes that can be canceled if you’re too sick to work,” she said.

Not everyone agrees with the findings of the Harvard research. Greg Scandlen, director of the Galen Institute, a research organization that promotes market-based health solutions
said, “I don’t doubt there are people who lose their jobs due to a medical problem and hence lose their income and their insurance. But this ‘study’ tells us absolutely nothing
about those people because it is trying so hard to exaggerate the problem.”

Many, such as Mr. Scandlen, and others including President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, believe Americans spend so much time running to doctors because they are
covered by employer-provided insurance. They argue that people would be less likely to seek medical treatment for minor ailments if they were picking up more of the tab.

Dr. Woolhandler’s husband, Dr. David Himmelstein, the lead author of the Harvard study, believes a national health insurance program and not a market-driven system is the answer
to the America’s medical problems. “The idea that consumer-driven health care is going to solve the fact that a whole lot of people are in trouble is a bizarre claim. … Unless
you’re Bill Gates, you’re just one serious illness away from bankruptcy.”

Moderator’s Comment: The medical insurance issue impacts both employers and employees. What should the retail industry be lobbying Washington and the
various state legislators to do about the issue?

George Anderson – Moderator

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