Imagine that you have been diagnosed with cancer. You need weekly chemotherapy treatments but your insurance plan limits your annual visits to the doctor, and its high deductibles are forcing you to choose between paying for treatment or paying the mortgage. Perhaps your employer dropped its health plan and you can’t afford one yourself.

 

Millions of people in America face harsh circumstances like these every day, and the economic crisis that has gripped the nation is bound to increase their numbers. Putting the country on firm economic footing will require that we improve the health care system for the nearly 46 million people without insurance and the estimated 25 million people with inadequate insurance that won’t cover critical treatments for life-threatening diseases such as cancer.

We can do better than the current system. To get there, we need to have a real debate about how best to improve health care. Regardless of who wins the presidential election, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama owe it to the public to avoid partisan arguments that have divided the country and doomed health care reform efforts in the past. Instead, each should be prepared have a real debate after Election Day about how to improve health care in America.

For starters, they ought to look at how Minnesota’s Republican governor and Democratic Legislature came together and began the hard work of confronting some of the biggest problems in the state’s health care system. Minnesota is taking on the problem of the uninsured by attempting to expand eligibility for its subsidized health insurance program, Minnesota Care, so working people whose employer does not offer health insurance have an affordable option for health care.

Our health care system regrettably places far more emphasis on treating disease than on preventing it in the first place. That needs to change. Minnesota’s new State Health Improvement Program will focus on preventing youth smoking and reversing the growing obesity epidemic, both of which are high risk factors for cancer and cardiovascular disease.

As a nation, we must elevate prevention by providing incentives for doctors to prescribe and patients to seek preventive services. In addition, we must eliminate co-pays and deductibles for lifesaving cancer screening tests such as mammography and colonoscopy.

Another problem is the way health care is delivered in this country. Cancer patients and others battling chronic disease frequently suffer complications from treatments requiring a team of health professionals and a comprehensive plan of care. Unfortunately, our health care system often prevents caregivers from addressing their needs in a coordinated way, leaving patients to navigate the health care system on their own for inadequate care at a higher cost.

Most people could list the features on their car more easily than they could explain what screenings, treatments and other services are covered by their health care plan. Health care represents 16 percent of the gross domestic product, but nowhere else in the American economy do we spend so much money while providing consumers with so little information about what they are purchasing.

Fixing the health care system demands that we empower consumers to better understand their health coverage. Americans need straightforward, accurate and real-time information about health plans so they can effectively choose the one that is best for them and have thoughtful conversations with their doctor about the care they need. Minnesota’s vision of health care homes would remove the barriers between patients and doctors, helping both to coordinate the delivery of health care more effectively and efficiently.

Minnesota does not have all the answers to the problems that plague our health care system, but it is to be commended for having moved beyond divisive debates in favor of results-oriented discussion. Federal lawmakers in both parties must do the same.

As the nationwide health care debate intensifies leading up to and beyond Election Day, we should focus on defining quality health care, empowering consumers to evaluate their health care needs and figuring out how to most effectively deliver the best care. If instead we return to the destructive debate over private vs. public health care, we will miss critical problems and an important opportunity to dramatically improve America’s health.

John R. Seffrin, Ph.D., is the national chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society and its advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.