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Health insurance leeches bleeding America dry

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"What country in its right mind would pay millions of people to deny other people health care?" -- Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed

It's the Fourth of July, so here's an idea for a renewal of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence: Let's declare our independence from health insurance companies. Let 'em go, kick 'em out the door, and say goodbye to bad rubbish.

Members of Congress are trying to hammer out a health care reform bill, and they'd be wise to show a bit of the country's early revolutionary spirit. They should remember -- rather, we the people should be sure they remember -- that Congress is in Washington to look out for the interests of the American people, and not the interests of the health insurance industry, no matter how many millions of dollars the industry has given them.

Every organized, modern country on earth has a health care system that recognizes decent health care as a human right, not a privilege for only those who can afford it. It's called being civilized. What we in America have instead of that kind of system is an insurance racket. It wasn't always that way -- the practice of employers providing insurance coverage didn't really take off till postwar companies started using it as a recruiting tool -- and there's no cosmic law that says Americans have to continue being dependent on the good will of insurance companies to stay healthy.

The way health care is set up in the United States now leaves more than 47 million Americans uninsured and millions more with substandard care. Last year, the United States ranked miserably in a study of deaths that could have been prevented by timely access to health care. The study, conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, looked at 19 countries. France, Japan and Australia scored the highest. We were dead last. If that wasn't bad enough, the study noted that "all countries have improved substantially except the U.S." (Cue ironic shouts of "USA! USA! USA!")

In other words, the way health care is set up in the United States now is wrecking companies and homes, and it's killing people. To get right to the point, our health care system is a travesty of justice and a mockery of the whole idea of America as a community of citizens.

Meanwhile, let me tell you what your health care plan would be if you were one of the fine public servants in Congress: You'd get unlimited doctor's office visits of your choosing; all routine exams, physical therapy, accidents, labs and X-rays are covered, as are unlimited hospital stays, most chronic care and rehab; you'd have full prescription coverage, and unlimited specialist consultations. There would be no deductibles and no co-pays. And that's for you and your entire family. The cost? Thirty-five dollars per month. I've tried but I can't think of any moral justification for denying these public servants' employers (us) the same kind of plan.

Barring the heavens opening up and God speaking directly to Congress, though, we're not going to get the Congressional health care system. So far, these guys can't even agree that Americans should have the choice to opt out of private health insurance. The main sticking point in the health care reform debate has been whether to include a "public option" in the final plan. Public option means that if someone could not acquire good coverage at an affordable price, he or she would be able to enroll in a government health insurance program akin to Medicare. It would be a safeguard for people whose employers don't provide insurance, those who've been rejected by insurance companies, or whose "pre-existing condition" sent their insurance payments into the stratosphere. Recent polls show that nearly three-fourths of Americans want such an option included in the plan.

A couple of weeks ago while arguing against the inclusion of a public option in the new health care bill, U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham repeated the standard health industry line, "People don't want a government bureaucrat standing between a doctor and his patient." The obvious reply, as several pundits have pointed out since then, is that what we have now is an insurance company standing between our doctors and us, and not too many people are happy about it.

And why should they be? The health insurance industry has grown into a giant parasite that threatens the American economy and individual Americans' lives. Even worse, because of insurance companies' plainly immoral practice of denying coverage to people who are actually sick -- in other words, people who really need insurance -- around 18,000 Americans die every year because they can't afford or can't qualify for health insurance.

A public option would be one of several choices for patients and businesses and would leave the private insurance system intact. But it would no doubt increase the number of Americans who get their health insurance through the government, which, of course, is why the health insurance industry is wailing, bribing, pressuring and fighting like crazy to kill the public option. They say it would ruin them. My question is: What does that say about the value of what the health insurance industry offers us? If Americans want to exercise their freedom of choice, and wind up pulling the parasitic insurance business off their backs, well, isn't that how a genuinely free market is supposed to work?

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