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Commentary: Nation should learn from mine workers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2013: The United Mine Workers of America were back in St. Louis Monday, rallying against Peabody Energy. The UMWA claims that Peabody created a spinoff company, Patriot Coal, that was designed to fail and saddled it with expenses including workers’ health insurance and pensions. When Patriot did in fact file for bankruptcy five years after its creation, 22,000 workers and retirees whose benefits had been reattributed to Patriot Coal lost those earned and negotiated benefits and joined the nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance.

But what do uninsured Americans have to do with you?

Health care is everyone’s problem. Caring for the desperately ill who cannot pay means that everyone who can must pay more. Once you reach age 65, society pays for much of your health care through Medicare. When people such as the Peabody workers are denied coverage and thus the care each of us needs, medical costs go up. No yearly checkups to monitor blood pressure, or diet, or activity level. No colonoscopy to check for colon cancer. No women’s health visits. You get the picture.

Not that private insurance has any interest in your health either. They understand that most Americans will move between multiple insurers before they reach Medicare age. Their interest is not to keep you healthy, it’s to keep you out of a doctor’s office, so that they don’t have to spend money on your case. Why would they invest in you, when you will eventually be someone else’s problem?

But wasn’t Obamacare supposed to fix everything? Well, some things are better, but by handing control of the insurance exchanges over to the states, legislatures such as the one in Missouri can needlessly complicate the process of registering for state insurance, preventing people from signing up. Or with minimums on coverage, employers can lower the standard on their plans from an industry average 80 percent of costs to the minimum 60 percent.

The ACA was a step forward, but in many ways it complicates health care as much as it alleviates problems. It is not the solution.

Long term, we must move to a universal comprehensive system for all Americans, an “Improved Medicare for All” system. One insurer, the government, funded by our progressive taxes, overseen by elected officials rather than profit-driven insurance companies, covering every citizen every day, or what some refer to as “single payer.”

The proof of efficacy exists. Medicare runs at 2-3 percent overhead costs. That’s unheard of in most businesses. Even if you like non-profit insurers, it’s hard to ignore CEOs making salaries of more than a million dollars.

In 2010, the average per-capita cost of health care in the European Union was $2,888. Every European nation handles health cost a bit differently, but each has universal comprehensive care administered by the national government. That same year, the USA spent $8,289 a person, and we didn’t cover everybody.

Those same nations also got better results than we did. When ranked against 16 other developed countries in nine major categories of a nation’s health, the USA was at the bottom or near the bottom in each category. American men: last in life expectancy. American women: next to last. We have the worst infant mortality rate, the highest rate of teen pregnancy and teen STDs, and these health disadvantages exist across all socio-economic groups from birth to 75.

But back to Peabody Energy. The reason companies drop workers’ health care is because the cost of that care is so large and rapidly increasing. Between 2009 and 2011, the cost of health care grew at a rate of 3.9 percent annually, and that was considered slow for the industry. Companies are expecting premiums to increase by about double that next year.

If businesses are having trouble paying for health benefits now, the forecast is absolutely terrifying for their profit margin. But, if the USA were to move to a single-payer health system, the cost of health care would not only be taken off of their hands, but could actually be solved rather than passed around.

A change has to be made and the right choice is clear, logical and proven. America must move to single-payer health care or be prepared to continue suffering the physical and economic consequences.

Ian Swenson is a member of the St. Louis chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program and a senior undergraduate student in biology at Washington University.