Solving the Problem of the Uninsured

Now that Cover the Uninsured Week has passed, it's time we got serious about addressing the problem. How much longer will we tolerate the cost and consequences of a broken health insurance system where millions have no coverage? So far we have made very little progress. Yet the value of covering the uninsured is estimated by the Institute of Medicine to be as high as $130 billion annually measured in terms of better health and longer life for our nation's uninsured. Why aren't we working harder on this problem?

As a medical professional, the country's uninsured crisis continues to frustrate me greatly. As a taxpayer, it cries out for solution. It is high time our state and national leaders stop bickering about who is to blame for rising health care costs, set aside the political posturing and finally make health care coverage a top priority.

Today, there are 46 million people in America, 8 million of them children, who are without health insurance of any kind and who therefore don't have full access to our health care system. Right now 8 out of 10 of the uninsured are in working families. So, chances are someone you know a friend, a neighbor or a family member is or has been uninsured. This is an unacceptable reality that must change.

Last month the Commonwealth of Massachusetts embarked on an innovative path to addressing the uninsured. Mitt Romney, the republican governor, worked with a democratic legislature to pass a law requiring all citizens to buy health insurance. This solution is modeled on the many state laws that require you to have car insurance. The Massachusetts plan includes assistance for low income people to reduce the burden of buying their health insurance. So far, this plan looks viable.

Most any solution to the vexing problem of the uninsured will have supporters and detractors, but one cannot help but be impressed with the bipartisan and almost unanimous passage of this Massachusetts legislation. It is a creative solution that health policy experts and politicians around the country will watch closely to see how it works over time. I hope it is very successful because it represents a solution to a bipartisan problem that has for too long been subjected to political pressures.

While the innovation in Massachusetts is impressive, much more is needed. We need action like this all across our Nation.

To some, a national solution means the federal government should insure everyone by implementing a single-payer system, similar to Medicare. I think that would be a mistake. Having been the administrator of the Health Care Finance Administration, now the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, I recognize that the federal government cannot absorb 100 percent of the cost of insuring 46 million more people.

We need a multi-pronged, but coordinated approach to solving this problem. We need to keep the safety net of health care services viable for the elderly, the needy and the disabled and, at the same time, provide incentives for the private sector to continue covering its employees and their families in a manner that is cost effective for employers and their workers.

And while states like Massachusetts and a handful of others have taken matters into their own hands, it cannot be solved without a nation-wide commitment.

Let's not just wait for next year's Cover the Uninsured Week to reflect on progress or the lack thereof in helping to insure the health of our fellow Americans. Just like the shot heard round the world began one revolution in Massachusetts, perhaps another one began recently there that will help lead the way toward health care coverage for all Americans.

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