Two Steps Forward for Just Health Care

by George Saunders

Steel Workers President Leo Gerard spoke strongly in support of the Labor Party’s “Just Health Care” campaign at the party’s Educational Conference July 26. The conference preceded the Second Constitutional Convention of the LP, scheduled for July 27–28. Earlier, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts had greeted gathering delegates on the evening of July 25.

Leo Gerard, current president of an international union (that is, a union with locals in both Canada and the United States), the United Steel Workers of America, said his father had been a mineworker in Canada, and he himself had been active in the union movement in Canada for thirty years or more.

Gerard recounted how the unions had won a national health care system in Canada, when workers and farmers in the western province of Saskatchewan banded together and elected labor leader Tommy Douglas to the provincial governorship. The health care system established in Saskatchewan (by the union-based New Democratic Party) was so successful and popular that it became a model for all of Canada.

Gerard said that he had been speaking in many parts of Canada recently in opposition to attempts to privatize the Canadian health care system.

The United States is the only advanced industrial country that does not have a universal, government-funded health care program. That is a situation that clearly must be changed, and the Labor Party’s Just Health Care campaign, being waged in alliance with Physicians for a National Health Program, is aimed at achieving that goal.

Representatives of the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) also participated in a prominent way at the Labor Party’s July 6 preconvention educational conference.

A second forward step for the Just Health Care campaign was an article that just appeared, written by leaders of the PNHP, exposing and highlighting the fact that our taxes are already paying huge amounts for health care, but we are not getting that care.

Below we reprint a press release from PNHP announcing the appearance of this highly revealing article.

“We Pay for National Health Insurance but Don’t Get It”

[Press Release, Physicians for a National Health Program, July 8, 2002. Contacts:  David Himmelstein, M.D.; Steffie Woolhandler, M.D. (617) 665-1032]

Government Funds 60% of U.S. Healthcare Costs—Far Higher than Previously Believed; Harvard Study Finds Government Health Spending in U.S. Higher Than in Any Other Nation

Government expenditures accounted for 59.8% of total U.S. health care costs in 1999, according to a Harvard Medical School study published today in the journal Health Affairs.

At $2,604 per capita, government spending was the highest of any nation—including those with national health insurance.   Indeed, government health spending in the U.S. exceeded total health spending (government plus private) in every other country except Switzerland.  (Estimated total U.S. health spending for 2002 is $5,427 per capita, with the government’s share being $3,245.)

The study analyzed data on spending for government health programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veterans Administration ($548.7 billion in 1999).

Also, two categories have previously been overlooked in calculating government health costs: (1) Expenditures to buy private insurance for government employees—e.g., members of Congress, firemen, and school teachers—at a cost of $65.6 billion in 1999; and (2) tax subsidies for private coverage—which totaled $109.6 billion in 1999.  Most of these tax subsidies go to the wealthiest Americans.

The study found that government’s share of expenditures has nearly doubled since 1965, with tax subsidies and public employee benefit costs increasing fastest.

The hidden government health spending has a major impact on family budgets.  In 1999, a family of four with average health costs spent $7,016 for their own health expenses and premiums (including what their employer paid).  Also, they paid $10,416 in health care taxes; $1,578 for tax subsidies, $943 for government workers’ coverage, and $7,895 for government health programs like Medicare and Medicaid.   Even many uninsured families pay thousands of dollars in taxes for the health care of others.

Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a study author and an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard, noted: “We pay the world’s highest health care taxes. But much of the money is squandered.  The wealthy get tax breaks. And HMOs and drug companies pocket billions in profits at the taxpayers’ expense. But politicians claim we can’t afford universal coverage.  Every other developed nation has national health insurance.  We already pay for it, but we don’t get it.”

Dr. David Himmelstein, study co-author and a co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program, commented:  “Our study shows that universal coverage is affordable—without a big tax increase.  Government already spends nearly enough, but its spending it wrong.  National health insurance doesn’t mean spending more; it means spending wisely.  We spend over $309 billion each year on paperwork in insurance companies, hospitals, and doctors’ offices—at least half of which could be saved through national health insurance.   We spend $150 billion on medications, at prices 50% higher than Canadians pay for the same drugs.  By slashing bureaucracy and drug prices we could save enough to cover all of the uninsured and improve coverage for the rest of us.”

“It’s an outrage that the American people pay sky high health care taxes—but over 40 million of them are uninsured,” said Dr. Quentin Young, past president of the American Public Health Association.  “Health care should be every American’s right, just like schools, roads, defense, police and fire protection.”

Physicians for a National Health Program is an organization of over 9,500 physicians that supports non-profit national health insurance. PNHP is based in Chicago with chapters across the U.S. (see below). For additional local contact information, call (312) 782-6006 or go to the website.

Don McCanne, M.D.
President, PNHP
(949) 493-3714
Deb Richter, M.D.  
President Vermont Health Care for All  
(802) 224-9037
Quentin Young, M.D.
National Coordinator, PNHP
(312) 782-6006
(773) 493-8212
Bob LeBow, M.D.  
Past President, PNHP
(208) 466-7869
Jonathan Ross, M.D.
Past President, PNHP
(419) 251-2360
New York
Oliver Fein, M.D.
President, New York Chapter, PNHP
(212) 746-4030