As we approach the second anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, it is clear that both proponents and the opponents of "Obamacare" have misdiagnosed much of the problem with our health care system.
Most health care "reformers" recognize that Americans pay twice what other nations pay for health care, yet our health outcomes are significantly worse than many of those nations. Reformers look for ways to make our system less expensive. Usually they do that by adding more restrictions and obstacles so other people do not get treatment unless we are absolutely sure they need it. These reformers, who always have good coverage themselves, see health care as an individual matter: "my health care matters to me, your health care matters to you."
It is worth taking a few minutes to question whether it is an individual matter.
Last July, there was a major story – fully half of the front page of the Sunday Star Tribune newspaper – about a couple who were struggling to get mental health treatment for their troubled son. The parents recognized serious problems from the beginning. As a toddler, the son would "knock the food away from other children in day care." At age 3, "he grabbed a knife and slashed the kitchen chairs." The parents tried, year after year, to get treatment. When he was a teenager, the parents finally found an in-patient program to provide help. Unfortunately, he was kicked out of the program after only thirteen days, for spraying a counselor with a fire extinguisher.
The mother felt that while the incident was not appropriate behavior, it was not unexpected for a young man with serious, persistent mental health problems. She believed that the real reason he was released from the program was that the administrators learned that the family's insurance covered only ten days in-patient, and he had already been there for twelve days.
In other words, this young man who desperately needed mental health treatment was kicked out of the program because his parents' insurance didn’t cover it, and there was no public program to cover it either.
Anyone reading that story last July had to be touched by the pain those parents faced. None of us would want to see our own kids fail to get care. Yet despite those sympathies, most health reformers, from both sides of the political aisle, view health care largely as a personal matter: "It is unfortunate for this young man and his family that he didn’t get the help he needed. But it doesn’t make much difference to the rest of us."
No, that is fundamentally wrong. The reality is that the health care of others does matter to the rest of us.
The reason the story of this family's struggle to get mental health care was on the front page of the paper, is that the son – who didn’t get the treatment he needed – was Michael Swanson, the person who killed two convenience store clerks in Iowa.
It does matter to you. It matters to me. It matters to all of us when somebody fails to get the health care they need. We are all in this together.
As long as we treat health care as an individual concern for each person or family to access, we will never fix our health care system. Politicians continue pushing proposals under which they can assure people that they can hang on to the coverage they have, and that those without coverage will be able to buy at least some basic coverage.
But that does nothing for someone like Michael Swanson whose parents had coverage – and more than basic coverage – they had a plan that provided up to ten days in-patient mental health coverage. It is in our interest that every person with mental illness gets the care they need, when they need it.
Those who see health care as an individual concern have misdiagnosed the problem.
Regardless of Republican attacks on "ObamaCare," the 2010 Affordable Care Act will help people with preexisting conditions get coverage. Young adults can now get coverage under their parents’ plans. For millions of Americans, it will make health care available.
But even under the Affordable Care Act, at the end of the decade there will still be 23 million Americans without even basic health coverage, and perhaps another 100 million who have insurance, but like the Swanson family, cannot afford the care they need.
It is time to recognize that we all benefit when everyone has comprehensive health care, as would occur under the proposed Minnesota Health Plan. It will keep people healthier, it will save money, and most importantly, it will save lives.