Tonight's Brewhaha is all about healthcare—7pm at Backspace. Healthcare has been everywhere in the news, recently. Even Congressman Earl Blumenauer and former chair of the DNC Howard Dean are planning a town hall on the subject here in Portland later this week.
Tonight we’re going to kick the Zeitgeist in the pants by hearing from our panelists about five of the ideas for healthcare reform that have been generating the most debate. Indeed, it’s more than likely that in six months to a year, one of their plans will be in place.
I’d like to set the tone for this evening's discussion by talking about a truly fascinating subject: Myself. As you may know, I am British. I came to Oregon in 2006 having spent quarter of a century in a country where healthcare is free to everyone. Britain’s National Health Service may not be perfect, but when I hear people in this country griping about how “unrealistic” single-payer healthcare is, I often do a double take. When I fell off a tractor at age 7, a doctor in Wales stitched my leg up, free of charge. I still cried, but the only bill my parents faced was for the chocolate bar I wanted, afterwards.
Being British I was born with terrible teeth—but I got free orthodontic treatment at age 11 and now, my smile is truly worthy of game show host status. When I got depressed in college, I got free psychotherapy. Later, while working for a bank, I got free Prozac—which allowed me to see clearly enough that quitting my job at the bank and going to work assisting a photographer was the best way to free myself from the depression. Chances are, if I’d faced giving up private health insurance, I would probably still be working in banking. And the British taxpayers would most likely have to stump up the cost of scraping me up off a sidewalk, one of these days.
I’m not exaggerating: In some small way, the National Health Service made me who I am. It held my hand when I was unsteady, and I am truly grateful for it.
On the other hand, when I arrived in Oregon I was instantly thrust into this anxiety-inducing world of “getting health insurance.” It’s not just interns across the land who are suffering for a lack of it. When I covered a city survey on the health of Portland’s homeless last October, 47 percent of 645 people surveyed had a medical condition like HIV, cirrhosis, or severe kidney disease that gives them a 40 percent chance of dying over the next seven years. 63 percent of the 645 were without health insurance. Most significantly, Portland's rate of tri-morbidity, where a person has co-occurring psychiatric, substance abuse, and chronic medical conditions—is 36 percent, compared to an average of 22 percent in the other cities surveyed.
The problem with American healthcare is not the quality. It’s access. For those who can afford it, this country has the best healthcare available. An article in this week’s New Yorker focusing on the small town, McAllen, in Texas finds that doctors there are racking up charges with extra tests, services and procedures: Viewing patients not as people in need of treatment, but as potential cash cows. To make money, author Atul Gawande implies, Doctors are literally inventing their patients. The average McAllen resident earns $12,000 a year. Last year, Medicare spent $15,000 per enrollee in the town.
Some terrifying statistics: 132,000 poor Oregonians were insured on the Oregon health plan in 1995. Only 19,000 are, now. A third of Americans under 65 was uninsured last year. 86.7million Americans were uninsured for at least a portion of the last two years. Four out of five uninsured people are in working families, nationwide. From the New Yorker:
“The greatest threat to America’s fiscal health is not Social Security,” said President Barack Obama at a March speech at the White House. “It’s not the investments that we’ve made to rescue our economy during this crisis. By a wide margin, the biggest threat to our nation’s balance sheet is the skyrocketing cost of health care. It’s not even close.”
So: What are we going to do about it? I'm excited for tonight's forum, to start finding out.