Public health is everybody’s
business, at least according to University President Mary Sue
Coleman, who, last Tuesday, addressed the Washtenaw County Medical
Society about her experience as the co-chair of the Institute of
Medicine’s Committee on the Uninsured. In her remarks,
Coleman expressed concern about the growing number of Americans
without health care coverage. In 2002, the number of people without
health care coverage grew by two million, the largest one-year
increase in over a decade, bringing the national total in excess of
45 million uninsured. Ann Arbor is by no means insulated from the
crisis: here at the University, health coverage was one of the most
salient topics behind the recent Lecturers’ Employee
Organization walkout. Here in Washtenaw County, 30,000 people
— 10 percent of the population — lack insurance.

Mira Levitan

These staggering numbers are partially the result of our
country’s transition into a postindustrial economy, and the
emergence of a sizeable service industry. As it stands, the
greatest concentration of gainfully employed, yet uninsured
citizens is found in the service industry. The men and woman who
stock our shelves and flip our burgers have become America’s
new blue-collar worker but are often not afforded the opportunity
to unionize like their industrial counterparts. In the past,
employers provided health care only under pressure from labor
unions. In today’s economy, where service industry workers
are continually denied the chance to unite, there is nothing to
keep workers insured and the coverage crisis in check.

With the employees themselves left powerless, the responsibility
of providing health care must fall upon a much larger entity.
Ideally, this extensive health coverage would be administered by
the federal government in a nationalized health care system.
However the record-setting U.S. budget deficit makes providing such
nationalized coverage temporarily untenable. Political deadlock
furthers this problem, as lawmakers seem incapable of reaching
consensus on how to insure all Americans. Nonetheless, this health
care crisis is an urgent epidemic and therefore demands immediate
action; public health cannot afford the time necessary to sift
through legislative red tape. For the time being, the
responsibility for providing healthcare must fall at the feet of
the corporations. Fundamentally, companies that provide health
insurance help the general population without seriously hurting
their bottom line.

As the number of America’s uninsured increases, so does
the burden they impose on the rest of the economy. The Committee on
the Uninsured estimates that the U.S. annually loses the equivalent
of $65 billion to $130 billion in economic output due to the
sickness and untimely death of many uninsured workers. Because
public hospitals are forced to provide care for all patients,
regardless of insurance status, many such hospitals tread on thin
ice, as they are forced to absorb billions in losses per year. The
Committee also calculated that, in 2001, tax dollars reimbursed 85
percent of the $35 billion in health care costs incurred by the
uninsured. Because companies are affected not only by increased
taxes but also decreased productivity, it would actually help
companies to cover their employees with insurance. If companies
provided health care for their own employees, they would lift a tax
burden off the public’s shoulders, reduce the costs imposed
by the uninsured on the economy, aid the public well-being and
propagate a more productive work environment.

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