Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Snyder draws a big crowd

For all those people who are sick with fear that the government will change the health-care system — there were droves of them at Congressman Vic Snyder’s massive town-hall meeting yesterday at the Convention Center at Little Rock — the news furnishes antidotes almost daily. With or without government action, the system is changing every day, and not for the better.

Families USA, a consumer health organization, reported this week that insurance premiums for Arkansas workers had increased 87.7 percent over the past nine years. A family paying $6,355 for medical coverage in 2000 was paying $11,927 at the beginning of this year.

But inflation is a fact of life and everyone just has to make allowance for it, right?

Not this kind of inflation. It is nearly six times the increase in median earnings for Arkansas families over the same period.

Every year, the increase in premiums reaches the breaking point for many workers and employers. Employers decide they can’t any longer sponsor medical plans for their workers, or else not all of their workers, or else not the same level of coverage. For thousands of employers, maybe most of them, the rising premium costs have driven them to negotiate policies with narrower coverage or much higher copays, or both. Even with all those economies, still the premiums go up every year at an undiminished pace.

It has reached this point: Here in poor Arkansas we spend more per person on direct medical care and insurance than any of the industrialized nations on earth and we have much less to show for it: far fewer people with access to medical care, a higher infant-death rate, shorter life expectancies.

Leaving this health-care system alone is not a luxury any of us can afford, not for long anyway.

How to stabilize and bring down medical and insurance inflation and how to keep people with health coverage through good times and bad are subjects worth serious debate and a good quarrel. Would a low-cost optional insurance plan sponsored by the government drive the big private carriers like Blue Cross, Wellpoint, Cigna, United and Aetna to hold down their underwriting costs and profits and thus stabilize premiums? Or would the low government cost eventually be too much competition for the big companies and drive them out of the market? We think the companies can fend for themselves; their profits even in this moribund economy are setting records. But it is not an issue that thoughtful people should dismiss out of hand.

The only idea that ought to be dismissed out of hand is that the government should do nothing, as many at the public forums advocate because, they say, the United States government cannot be trusted. We do not have a democracy so that we can elect a government that leaves the most desperate problems of the people unaddressed.