Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

TOP STORY > >Berry wants better health care

Leader staff writer

On the average, one working-aged Arkansan dies every day needlessly for lack of health insurance, according to a report issued last week by Families USA, a national health-advocacy group.

The Democratic Congress has worked to block Bush administration efforts to further reduce the number of Americans with health insurance coverage, according to Cong. Marion Berry, who joined Families USA director Ron Pollack on a press teleconference Thursday.

“Healthcare access should not be a privilege but something everyone can depend upon,” Berry said.

What’s unique about the Families USA study is not the national numbers, which have been reported before, but the breaking down of those numbers by state.

Although Arkansas is a small state, it has a disproportionately high death rate because so many Arkansans lack health care, said Pollack.

In 2006, an estimated 390 Arkansans aged 25-64 died for lack of health insurance, according to Pollack. That’s approximately one a day and twice on Sunday.

That year, there were 1,435,000 Arkansans in that age range, and nearly a quarter of them were uninsured.

“Uninsured Arkansans are sicker and die sooner than their insured counterparts,” Pollack said.

Between 2000 and 2006, 2,400 people died in the U.S. for lack of insurance, he said—twice as many who died from homicide. Two studies showed that among working-aged people, the mortality rate is 25 percent higher among those without health insurance, pretty much across the spectrum of causes of death, Pollack said.

“The study is quite predictable,” Berry said. “You don’t have to be all broke out in brilliance to know that people without coverage are much more likely to let illness go too long and lose a life.”

“We know how to fix this,” said Berry. “Our budget resolution this year gets us headed in the right direction. We know how to pay for this when we stop being so generous to the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.”

Berry said the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SHCIPS), which was cut back this year by the Bush administration, is a template for expanding health insurance opportunities, with families paying part or all of the costs.

Because nearly all U.S. residents are insured after the age 65 by Medicare, and many younger people are insured through programs like ARKids, Medicaid or are on family or college insurance plans, the predominance of insured are in that 25-64 age range.

The total number of Arkansans without health insurance is 520,000, according to Debra Pate, communications specialist with the Fay W. Boozman School of Public Health in Little Rock. Of those, 378,000 are between 19 and 65 years old, she said.

Under Gov. Mike Beebe and State Health Director Dr. Joe Thompson, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement convened an Arkansas Health Insurance Expansion Roundtable, Pate said. They have implemented the Arkansas Health Networks to help small businesses get health insurance for their employees with a health-care benefits package that includes six physician visits a year and other benefits.

The roundtable, which is a group of 31 experts from around the state, will soon have its third meeting, Pate said, and hopes to have a proposal to address the problem in time for the 2009 legislative session.

“The conclusion of all this,” said Pollack, “is that lack of adequate health care and insurance condemns many Arkansans to an early death.”

Families USA is a nonprofit health advocacy group that gets almost 100 percent of its funding from foundations. The largest donors among them are three foundations long known for health and public health philanthropy. They are the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies.