Most proposals treat it as something to be bought and sold, but really, it's a community need. Consider a common-sense analogy.
"Health care costs are taking a hefty bite out of Minnesotans' family incomes," as Chen May Yee reported in the Dec. 20 Star Tribune. In fact, health care is bankrupting many families, even those with health insurance, as the article pointed out. People ask what good it is to have the best doctors if they cannot afford to go to them.
Politicians of both parties have been tinkering with health-insurance reforms for years, but that's not solving the problem.
Before deciding how to move ahead, we should recognize that there is a big philosophical divide about how to proceed: Is health care a commodity or a community need?
Many politicians view it as a commodity -- something that is bought and sold in the marketplace. "Bought," that is, to the extent you can afford it. However, if you believe that all people deserve access to affordable health care, as two-thirds of Americans do believe, then there is a problem. Many people don't earn enough to buy health care.
Most health proposals from politicians reflect this commodity approach. They reason that if people cannot afford health care, government should subsidize the coverage or allow insurance plans to cover fewer medical services to save money. To achieve universal health coverage, these proposals would require residents to buy insurance. In Massachusetts, this proposal has become law, but even with that requirement, Massachusetts has a target of only 95 percent insured.
Equally troubling, Minnesotans who have insurance still face astronomical health costs, and they would get little relief from this type of reform.
As an alternative, we could treat health care as a community need, something everybody needs and everyone gets -- just like police and fire protection.
If you call the police because your home is being burglarized, the police dispatcher doesn't ask whether you have police insurance and what plan you have. He or she doesn't waste time and money having you fill out forms so your insurance company can be billed. The police response does not depend on your insurance status. Everyone is treated equally. It's the American way.
If health care were treated as a community need, when you were sick you would get the care you needed. And you would get sick less often, because you would receive preventive care and health education to assist you in taking responsibility for your health. As with police and fire protection, we all would pay for it, and we all would benefit from it.
Our current commodity health-care system leaves many people without access to needed care. In contrast, other western, industrialized nations cover everyone for all medical needs. That's why people in those countries have longer life expectancies and lower infant mortality rates.
In reality, everyone in Minnesota eventually gets health care. If people can't afford treatment, we wait until they are really sick, then we pay for more costly hospitalization and emergency-room care. We end up paying more because people don't have health care up front. We don't focus on prevention. And with our incredibly complex insurance system, about 30 cents of every health-care dollar we spend goes to administrative costs. That is why Americans pay at least 50 percent more for health care than those other nations pay.
Many middle-income families have insurance but are still only one serious illness away from bankruptcy. Our businesses, schools and government face skyrocketing health-care costs.
It is time for Minnesota to make sure that every Minnesotan has access to the health care that they need. By treating health care as a community need, not as an optional commodity, we will live healthier lives and save money, too.
John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is chairman of the Minnesota Senate Health Committee and author of legislation to create a Minnesota Health Plan.