Monday, January 28, 2008
Eyeing the State of the Union
By Caleb Hellerman
Senior Medical Producer
Last summer, when he was defending his veto of expanded federal health insurance for children, President Bush said something interesting. Sounding exasperated, he said critics were wrong to say that access to health care is a big problem. "People have access to health care in America. After all, just go to an emergency room."
It was awkward at best, jaw-dropping at worst. But in fairness, most people I know have the same general sense: that as much as we gripe about medical bills or the cost of insurance, if something were to go wrong - really wrong - someone will be there to take care of us.
But for me, the past few months have been eye-opening. We've been digging into the issue of health care, for a documentary that airs Thursday night (Broken Government: Health Care - Critical Condition, which airs Thursday at 11 p.m. ET, after the Democrats' debate). We found cancer patients dying because they couldn't afford radiation treatment and well-off, well-insured couples who went bankrupt after medical emergencies.
It's true that many people like their doctor, even the health care system in general. A CNN poll in November found 79 percent are happy with the health care they receive, and 69 percent are satisfied with their insurance coverage. And yet in that very same poll, 62 percent said they believe the system needs a great deal of reform. Clearly, something is wrong.
I think that people sense that the safety net is getting smaller. In just the past eight years, thousands of companies have dropped health insurance for their workers, and companies who still offer it are asking workers to pay more. On the private market, the cost of insurance is frightening -- an average of $12,106 per year for a family of four, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And for too many, the emergency room is the only answer. A Harvard study this month found that ER wait times got 40 percent longer between 1997 and 2004, and the lead researcher blamed "Americans' poor access to primary and preventive care which could address medical issues before they become emergencies."
President Bush didn't use that emergency room line more than once, as far as I can tell. Someone may have told him it just didn't sound right. Tonight is the State of the Union address, when the president lists what he hopes to accomplish this year. Members of Congress and the assembled guests either leap up to clap, or sit on their hands, depending what they think of each suggestion. I'm eager to see what health care issues come up - and whether there's anything which gets a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.
What do you think needs to be done to improve health care in the United States?
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