Guest Column (6/4/09)

Six measures to fix health care

June 4, 2009

By Greg Marchildon

As members of Congress mingle with Vermont voters over the coming months, health care reform is sure to be Topic A for discussion. The nation’s broken health care system has finally reached the top of the domestic agenda, and lawmakers plan to tackle the problem in earnest after the holiday break.

Affordable health care choices for all Americans must be the goal. Yet this basic necessity is increasingly out of reach, and the recession has made a serious problem worse as laid-off workers lose their health benefits.

In Vermont, nearly 10,000 residents ages 50 to 64 lack health insurance, mostly because they cannot afford it, due to high premiums based on their age and medical history. Many more are underinsured, relying on very high deductible plans or minimal coverage. Drug costs are soaring, and in Vermont, 25 percent of those enrolled in the Part D drug benefit have landed in the infamous “doughnut hole,” potentially facing thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs.

But statistics cannot convey the human toll suffered by those who cannot afford health care. At AARP, we hear their stories all the time: Cancer patients who cannot afford health insurance; people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and heart disease who cannot fill out their costly prescriptions; workers who quit their jobs to care for ailing spouses because they cannot afford to pay for in-home care; people who burn through their life savings, lose their homes and end up in bankruptcy because someone got sick.

The mounting problems in health care breed cynicism, stress and even despair. As a patient who is fast running out of money put it: “So much for the American dream.”

AARP is fighting to make the system work for everyone. We believe that Congress should take six steps to guarantee that all Americans have the choice of quality health care plans they can afford:

•    Guarantee affordable coverage for Americans ages 50-64;

•    Close the Medicare Part D coverage gap or “doughnut hole;”

•    Create access to generic versions of costly biologic drugs used to treat cancer and other serious illnesses;

•    Prevent costly hospital readmissions by creating a Medicare follow up care benefit to help people transition home after a hospital stay;

•    Increase federal funding and eligibility for home and community based services through Medicaid so older Americans can remain in their homes as they age and avoid more costly institutional care; and

•    Improve programs that help low income Americans in Medicare afford the health care and prescription drugs they need.

Our health care system costs too much, wastes too much, makes too many mistakes and gives us back too little value for our money. This sad diagnosis is shared by many on both sides of the political aisle.

Yet while members of Congress disagree on details of health reform, the over-arching goal of affordable, accessible health care for all commands widespread support. So does the recognition that we all share responsibility to be part of the solution.

With costs rising and coverage shrinking, the need for fair, bipartisan measures to repair the system has never been so urgent.

That is the message our lawmakers should be hearing as they visit with constituents during this current recess and over the summer. And that is the message they should act on when they return to Washington.

Greg Marchildon is the AARP Vermont State director.