Both the United States and the United Kingdom have struggling economies in the wake of the Great Recession with high unemployment rates and levels of economic insecurity. But consider this: In the UK if a worker loses or changes his job, his access and that of his dependents to that nation’s universal healthcare system remains the same no matter what. And he will never be billed a penny for any medical treatment he or his spouse or his children receive.
Contrast that with his American counterpart. Assuming that he is fortunate enough to work for a company that even provides health insurance, he is always vulnerable to the possibility of out-of-pocket medical expenses not covered under his plan. (Medical debt is the single biggest cause of personal bankruptcy in America. 62% of personal bankruptcies are the result of medical expenses, and 78% of them had some form of medical insurance.) If he loses his job he also loses his health insurance. And to get covered under a new insurance plan will be difficult if not impossible if he or a dependent family member has a significant pre-existing condition.
The Affordable Care Act will ameliorate some of the most egregious features of the private health insurance market and the gaps in coverage. However, Republicans are committed to repealing the law. Medicare and Medicaid provide medical coverage for the elderly and very poor but both programs are under assault from the GOP under the pretext of reducing the budget deficit.
In an economy that is struggling for air many companies are saddled with burdensome overhead to provide health insurance for their workers. For example, it’s been estimated that healthcare costs add up to $2,000 to the price of a car made in Detroit. It’s no accident that US automakers have plants in Canada where wage rates are comparable but they don’t have the same burden of worker health costs. And these adverse effects on our industrial competiveness are by no means limited to the auto industry.
The current argument over entitlement spending misses the point. The fragmented nature of the American non-system of health care coverage is the problem not Medicare and Medicaid. The private insurance industry, with its inordinately high administrative overhead compared with, say, Medicare, has proven to be as inefficient and ineffective at slowing medical inflation as it is at providing affordable insurance to the poor and ailing elderly. That is why Medicare and Medicaid exist in the first place. Cutting the benefits or eligibility of these entitlements, therefore, as the GOP wishes will simply shift costs to those least equipped to assume the burden.
A universal health insurance system to share the cost as well as the benefits as widely as possible makes both moral and economic sense. Just ask the people of every other advanced nation in the world.