Health insurance for all?

Feb 062008
Authors: Seth Anthony

If you’ve watched any TV lately, you’ve probably seen one of those commercials, where an announcer or political candidate reminds us, in a very serious voice, that there are 47 million Americans without health insurance, and that something must be done.

These days, “health insurance for all” is the bandwagon everyone wants to join — from Democrat Hillary Clinton, whose national health care plan would mandate insurance for everyone, to Republican Mitt Romney, who signed such a mandate into law as governor of Massachusetts. Colorado is among approximately half a dozen other states considering similar proposals.

Health insurance, while it does help many, has at least two fundamental weaknesses:

Health insurance often fails to help in the worst situations. If you’re diagnosed with cancer, need organ replacement, or get into a major accident, medical bills can easily rise to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Many health insurance plans, however, stop paying benefits after a certain dollar amount, sometimes as little as $50,000. Families in these situations must rely on charity or, more often, declare bankruptcy.

Health insurance often fails to help people get routine care. Most health insurance plans have deductibles or co-payments, which means they only start paying for health care after you’ve already spent a certain amount.

To families who are struggling, for whom every dollar counts, it’s enough of a burden to find time to go to the doctor, let alone to come up with the co-payment or deductible.

Heath insurance lowers the barrier to medical care, but, even for many who have it, those barriers are still shockingly high.

Health insurance won’t magically solve all our problems, but it will funnel billions of dollars of new business to health insurance companies — in effect, delivering an indirect government subsidy to them.

Because the government will have to help those who can’t afford health insurance pay for it, that indirect business will turn into direct subsidies to private business.

That’s not to say that health insurance is bad or that insurance companies are evil. Health insurance helps millions of Americans.

It’s just that health insurance for all isn’t going to be the magical solution to all our health-related woes. We should remember that mandating health insurance can easily cause as many problems as it solves.

I don’t have all the answers, but here’s my contribution to the debate: Any system has to recognize that there are some people who just can’t afford the medical care.

In order to get timely care and avoid bankruptcy, these folks will need assistance from others. We need to make it easier for people to help each other with health care costs.

Under current law, for instance, if a family spends more than a certain fraction of their income on health care, they can claim that amount as a tax deduction — it reduces the amount of taxes they have to pay. We need to move in the direction of making every single dollar spent on health care tax-deductible. (By the way, we need to do this for education, too.)

Right now, for instance, you can only take a tax deduction for your medical expenses or your immediate family.

But Americans are generous, and often help others who are in need.

If you contribute to paying the medical bills for a cousin, a good friend, a church member, or even a random stranger, you should get a tax break — so that every time you help with other’s medical needs, whether it’s $100 or $100,000, it carries some benefit for you.

Most importantly, though, we need to keep our eyes on the prize. The goal shouldn’t be health insurance, or even health care, for everyone — those are just means to an end.

The real goal, which hardly anyone mentions, is very simple: health.

Seth Anthony is a Chemistry Ph.D. student. His column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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