My turn: Universal health care can work for us

Posted: Monday, March 26, 2007

A wave is beginning to build in state capitols across the country. In the face of inaction by the federal government, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont and now California are leading the effort to promote universal health care coverage among their citizens. In May 2006, Gov. Mitt Romney signed a bill that ensures health care coverage for all Massachusetts residents. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently proposed a similar plan for the people of his state.

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In the past, powerful interests have opposed universal health coverage. However, recent policy innovations have convinced many business and political leaders that fears about health care rationing and restricted access to doctors and hospitals are no longer valid.

These new plans do not call for the replacement of the current health care system with a new and untested model. This is not socialized medicine. Indeed, it is not the so-called single-payer system sought by the most progressive reformers. Instead, policymakers are taking the more pragmatic approach of retooling health care delivery methods that are currently in use.

The first principle of this new wave of health care legislation is individual responsibility. These laws impose a duty on each citizen to acquire some minimal form of health insurance coverage. This key idea recognizes that while the government has a role in shaping the health insurance landscape, ultimately it is the individual who must see to his or her own basic needs. This provision also ensures that the cost of health care is shared as broadly as possible.

Another major change in the law calls for employers who do not offer health insurance to their employees to contribute to a fund that would help pay for coverage of the working uninsured. This is a particularly needed reform here in Alaska. While many small-business owners would like to offer health insurance to their employees, the cost is often out of reach. Some subsidy will be necessary to help those who work for very small businesses.

A comparison between Alaska and Lower 48 small businesses reveals the necessity of this reform. A March 2006 Institute of Social and Economic Research study showed that only a third of Alaska businesses with fewer than 50 employees offer coverage, compared with 43 percent nationwide. The ISER study noted that 91,500 of the state's 224,500 private industry employees work for small businesses, meaning that over 60,000 working Alaskans do not get health care insurance through their jobs. This study helps defeat the notion that only the lazy or the poor are not covered by health insurance.

This reform does not have to be expensive. For example, the California plan requires businesses that do not offer health insurance and that have 10 or more workers to pay four percent of their total wages to a state fund that would be used to subsidize the purchase of health policies.

Another innovation redistributes Medicaid coverage in two ways. The first is simply to expand Medicaid eligibility guidelines for children and adults and add enhancements such as dental and vision benefits. The other change is to take the Medicaid dollars currently being spent to reimburse hospitals and other providers for the free care they provide to the uninsured, and use the money instead to subsidize health insurance for those who cannot afford it. Stop for a moment and consider what a good idea this is: Take the money spent on hospital bills each year for the uninsured, and buy health insurance instead.

These policy changes all lead to the goal of covering every citizen with a basic form of health insurance. I believe it is time for Alaska to take up the same challenge. I plan to introduce legislation that uses these enhanced policy tools to pave the way to universal health care coverage for all Alaskans.

Changing the health insurance system is not easy. Yet I am certain that someday we will look back on this era and ask ourselves, "What took so long?" There is no reason not to begin what will certainly be a spirited debate.

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