New allies in health care fight

Our nation’s health care crisis is in the public eye, and while Democratic presidential candidates, with the exception of Dennis Kucinich, are trying to appropriate the language of universal health care to win support for plans that don’t eliminate the private insurance industry, new opportunities for alliances and advocacy continue to appear.

Organizations that have previously focused on providing communities with educational services are rethinking their strategies and beginning to advocate systemic change.

For example, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recently announced it would dedicate its full $15 million advertising budget to promoting health care reform.

According to its web site, the ACS aims for a health care system that is no longer “segmented,” that is, broken into categories of “insurable” or “uninsurable” because individuals are healthier or sicker. It defines meaningful health insurance to be adequate, affordable, available and administratively simple.

It calls for timely and unrestricted access to the full range of evidence-based care, including prevention and early detection, and for costs to be based on a person’s ability to pay.

The ACS announcement takes place in a certain context. The health care situation is worsening: 47 million people lived without insurance for all of 2006, an increase of over 2 million from 2005. The number of uninsured children also grew by 700,000 to 8.7 million over the course of the last year.

According to the Commonwealth Fund, one-third of Americans were uninsured or underinsured for a portion or all of 2006. These trends are unsurprising, given that insurance premiums have increased 87 percent since 2000, while family incomes increased only 11 percent. According to the Institute of Medicine, 18,000 people die every year from lack of insurance.

Difficulties faced by cancer patients illustrate this crisis. In a study carried out by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in three families affected by cancer reports a problem paying their medical bills. One in four reports using all or most of their savings to pay cancer care bills.

Given that the cost of cancer chemotherapy regimens can easily reach into the tens of thousands of dollars, not counting associated costs of hospitalization and doctor visits, it is understandable how almost 30 percent of people afflicted with cancer report delaying or foregoing cancer treatment because of the cost.

Some who need treatment are running into additional obstacles. For example, in an effort to exclude individuals without insurance from public services and to escalate anti-immigrant feeling, the federal government recently told New York state that chemotherapy for cancer is no longer covered for undocumented immigrants under the government-funded Emergency Medicaid program.

Emergency Medicaid is a small subsection of the Medicaid program that does not take immigration status into consideration. Generally speaking, it is only used by indigent individuals with health emergencies.

It is unclear how many undocumented immigrants have cancer, but access to chemotherapy and other treatments are essential for survival of these patients.

With increased media coverage and the recent release of Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” health care reform is a big issue in the 2008 elections. Every Democratic presidential candidate is advocating “universal health care,” and even groups who have previously opposed expanded access to health care, such as the American Medical Association, are trying to repaint themselves to reflect the public’s demands.

While many of these proposals include a role for private insurers and some, especially the AMA plan, give the insurers total control, they are being put out there because Americans are furious about our broken health care system.

Plans that don’t eliminate the for-profit corporations contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. Ultimately, comprehensive care with universal access can only be accomplished through a single-payer system such as HR 676, sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and others.

The far-right continues to try to dismantle important social programs that protect the public’s health. However, increasingly broader segments of service and educational organizations are calling for systemic health care reform. By engaging with these and other organizations in the political center, progressive-minded people can develop a more powerful coalition that will ultimately win quality, affordable health care for all.