Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Poverty and Uninsurance Diverge: So let’s solve the problem!

Wyandotte and Johnson counties form the Kansas side of the Kansas City metropolitan area. Wyandotte, mainly Kansas City, KS, where I live, is an old “rust-belt” inner city, packing-house industrial city, and is the poorest county in Kansas. Johnson, to its south, consists of older inner suburbs and newer, were-recently-farmland suburbs, and is the richest and most populous Kansas county, with more than 3 times the population of Wyandotte. In Johnson County, only 14% of the population is below 200% of the poverty level, compared to Wyandotte County’s 44%, but it actually a slightly larger absolute number (73,200 to 67,400) because of Johnson County’s larger population. More interesting is the uninsured rate; while it has fewer than 10% more people under 200% of poverty, Johnson County has 2.5 times as many uninsured people as does Wyandotte County.

This means, obviously, that there are many non-poor uninsured people, and this is a national phenomenon. For most of this century, poverty and uninsurance rates tracked together. But in the late 1990s, with poverty rates decreasing, uninsurance rates continued to rise. With the recent recession, both have climbed, but uninsurance is rising at a higher rate. (See graph).

This dissociation between poverty and uninsurance is a very troubling phenomenon; while it is bad enough for poor people to not have financial access to health care, more and more of the uninsured are not poor.

Thus the case for health reform: let’s do something about this. Let’s dissociate the “privilege” of having health insurance from being employed by an entity large enough to afford to provide it, and make sure everyone has financial access to high quality care. Unfortunately, the current plans in the Congress will not do so. The recent assurance by Senate Majority Leader Reid that the Senate bill will contain a “public option”, as will the House bill, obscures the fact that the public option it contains will be weak; in an ostensible effort to not give the public option an “unfair advantage” over private insurance plans, it has been given an unfair disadvantage – it will not be able to use its public status to set rates for provider compensation, as does Medicare, or for drug prices, as Medicare (under the bad restrictions of Part D) also does not.

This is, of course, bizarre: why should anyone, other than the insurance companies themselves, care that they can continue to make money hand over fist while providing inadequate coverage, and not be held accountable by having to compete with a public option that provides comprehensive coverage and does not have to make a profit? Oh yes, the senators and congressmen who get contributions from those insurance companies, yes, but the rest of us? Why should we care? And why should we not insist that our representatives represent our interests, and not those of the insurance companies?

Much of the opposition – not only to single payer, but to a “public option” has been based on, not to put too fine a point on it, lies spread by opponents who are mostly on the payroll of insurance companies. These lies have led people to think that they will lose the excellent medical care, and extensive freedom of choice that they have under the current system (oh, whoops, forgot, they don’t!) if we have a government program. Writing in the Oct 28, 2009 issue of JAMA, Joseph S. Ross and Allan S. Detsky look at “Health care choices and decisions in the United States and Canada[1], choosing Canada specifically “…because the Canadian health system, with much greater government involvement, is often publicly portrayed in the United States as limiting choice.” They review the restraints on choice of insurance plans, hospitals and doctors, and diagnostic testing and treatments, and conclude, modestly that “…there is clear evidence that for Canada’s health care system, less choice in insurance coverage (although guaranteed) has not resulted in less choice of hospitals, physicians, and diagnostic testing and treatments compared with the United States. In fact, there is arguably more choice.” More than “arguably”, I’d say, based on the evidence provided in their piece.

The fewer obstacles that are placed in the way of services to people, the more efficient they are, the more they are appreciated, and the less they affront the dignity of the people receiving them. When comprehensive services are provided to everyone, there is no need to put people through rigorous screening to see if they are poor enough, or don’t have other insurance, or are deserving enough to receive them.

Ironically, or maybe not, the same legislators who decry government bureaucracy are those who demand that bureaucracy through establishing restrictions on programs that help people. This includes, of course, income and citizenship verification for those seeking help with health care; after all we wouldn’t want people to “cheat” and avail themselves of public services when they didn’t “need” them, when their incomes exceeded the 200% of poverty, or 100% of poverty, or 38% of poverty* that we require. If there were one program for everyone, a single-payer or Medicare-for-all program, then all this bureaucracy could be eliminated. We wouldn’t have to screen people, because everyone would be eligible. It would be everyone’s program.

I have written before about the enormous administrative cost involved in both insurance companies (payers) and providers having huge teams of people to try to deny payment or get paid; in one more way, a single-payer plan would eliminate administrative waste and bureaucracy. Funny that those anti-government-bureaucracy folks can’t – or won’t – see it this way.

*38% of poverty was what one's income used to have to be to get financial assistance in Kansas if you were a childless adult -- and it was $100/month. Now it is not available at all.

[1] Ross JS, Detsky AS, “Health care choices and decisions in the United States and Canada”, JAMA, Oct 28, 2009;302(16):1803-4.

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