My Turn: Healthcare reform: The time is now

Posted: Friday, June 26, 2009

I awoke in the middle of a dreary February night covered in hives and barely able to breathe. Frantically, I stumbled across the hallway in search of help from my roommate who, upon assessing my condition (I have severe allergies), accompanied me to the nearby hospital emergency room. The physicians and hospital staff were attentive and within a few hours I emerged from my Benadryl-induced slumber ready to take on the next day of classes. Upon checking out I was surprised to learn that I owed nothing. How, you might ask, was I able to receive medical care - in an emergency setting, no less - at no cost?

Well, I was on my junior term abroad at the University College London, and thanks to the National Health Service, I, like all UK students, was entitled to free care. As the hospital receptionist explained, almost everyone requires access to healthcare at one point or another and in a time of illness no one should be forced to make difficult economic decisions, like whether to forgo medical care in order to put food on the table, pay rent or meet student loan payments.

I couldn't agree more, but back home in the United States the healthcare situation is very different. Stories abound about families declaring bankruptcy in the face of overwhelming medical debt - the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States, according to a study published in the American Journal of Medicine earlier this month - or uninsured children dying of preventable and easily treated illnesses like an abscessed tooth in the case of one Maryland boy. But the impact of our healthcare system's inefficiencies stem far beyond these personal tragedies. We need look no further than our failing automobile industry, whose demise is in large part owing to the fact that they, unlike their foreign counterparts, are forced to shoulder the costs of providing health insurance to their employees, to understand that our medical system is profoundly broken. Even more astounding is the $5,711 per capita spent on healthcare in the United States, almost double the amount spent by other industrialized nations like the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Australia, all of which manage to provide near-universal coverage to their citizens.

As our country faces one of the most profound economic crises in its history, it is clear that the health of our economy and our people are inextricably linked, and that our medical system is urgently in need of repair.

Fortunately, President Obama and leaders in Congress are working toward a solution. While several plans have been proposed, the most promising are those that include a public insurance option and tighter regulation on the insurance industry, cracking down on such unjust practices as charging increased premiums for pre-existing conditions. The public plan would exist as just one choice among many other private options and would provide coverage to the 47 million Americans currently unable to afford health insurance. Unfortunately, many powerful lobbies including insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry and the American Medical Association stand in the way of achieving this needed reform.

As a student preparing to begin my first year of medical school at the University of Washington WWAMI program in Anchorage, I am driven by a belief that all individuals are entitled to quality healthcare. If you also believe that our healthcare system is fundamentally flawed and in need of reform, please get informed at healthreform.gov, write Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and Rep. Don Young, and become involved in grassroots efforts to educate neighbors and promote healthcare justice for all. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to effect change, and I hope you'll decide to take part.

• Natalie Hale lives in Juneau and recently completed a fellowship in the New York City Office of the Mayor. She is a 2008 graduate of Yale College and has served as an editor for the Yale Journal of Public Health.



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