The Real Death Panels

45,000 Deaths Each Year Linked to Lack of Insurance

Edward Hanway, CIGNA CEO, shown here with President Obama, made over $120 million in the past five years

Edward Hanway, CIGNA CEO, shown here with President Obama, made over $120 million in the past five years

JEFF MUCKENSTURM

Liberals and conservatives alike will often argue against adopting a universal, single-payer system like Canada’s for the United States because they say it will lead to rationed care.

But then they will immediately defend rationing in our system by saying, “We already have a doctor and nurse shortage, so if we gave coverage to everyone, we’d have to wait in long lines to get care.”

So, even though that’s not true, 47 million people in the US will just have to be excluded from the system altogether.

The result of American rationing by income, not level of need, is that in the U.S. “nearly 45,000 annual deaths are associated with lack of health insurance,” according to a new Harvard study released today.

That’s two and a half times higher than the previous estimate by the Institute of Medicine in 2002.

“An increase in the number of uninsured and an eroding medical safety net for the disadvantaged likely explain the substantial increase in the number of deaths associated with lack of insurance. The uninsured are more likely to go without needed care,” says Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP).

No doubt, there is some rationing in Canada. But when I asked PNHP how many deaths there are in Canada due to being uninsured, Dr. David Himmelstein responded, “Uninsurance is such a non-issue there that no one tries to count.”

Even if you have insurance, you’re not safe from rationing. It occurs every time a private insurance corporation denies a claim.

According to the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA/NNOC), “More than one of every five requests for medical claims for insured patients, even when recommended by a patient’s physician, are rejected by California’s largest private insurers, amounting to very real death panels in practice daily in the nation’s biggest state.”

PacifiCare denied 40 percent of all California claims in the first six months of 2009. Cigna was still rejecting one-third of all claims for the first half of 2009.

Private insurers in California and across the nation deny (i.e. ration) needed care because of the high demand for profits from their stockholders.

Former CIGNA executive Wendell Potter explains what investors call the “medical loss ratio”:

Well, there’s a measure of profitability that investors look to, and it’s called a medical loss ratio. And it’s unique to the health insurance industry. And by medical loss ratio, I mean that it’s a measure that tells investors or anyone else how much of a premium dollar is used by the insurance company to actually pay medical claims. And that has been shrinking, over the years, since the industry’s been dominated by, or become dominated by for-profit insurance companies. Back in the early ’90s, or back during the time that the Clinton plan was being debated, 95 cents out of every dollar was sent, you know, on average was used by the insurance companies to pay claims. Last year, it was down to just slightly above 80 percent.

So, investors want that to keep shrinking. And if they see that an insurance company has not done what they think meets their expectations with the medical loss ratio, they’ll punish them. Investors will start leaving in droves.

I’ve seen a company stock price fall 20 percent in a single day, when it did not meet Wall Street’s expectations with this medical loss ratio.

Rationing in the US is astonishing.

It causes 120 people to die every day.

It leaves 47 million people in agony as they put off care until it’s an emergency.

And all of our suffering and dying makes a few people very, very rich.

We need to put private insurance corporations out of business immediately and provide a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system for everyone so that 45,000 people don’t have to lose their lives every year just because they don’t have insurance.

Jeff Muckensturm is Web Coordinator and grant writer for Healthcare-NOW!, an organization fighting for a national, single-payer healthcare system

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