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National Health Care Plan Touted

Based on the Medicare program, it would cut annual private-industry costs by more than $200billion, a physicians' group says.

August 13, 2003|Vicki Kemper | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A national health insurance program would save more than $200 billion a year in administrative, marketing and other private-industry expenses -- more than enough to provide health care to the 41 million Americans who now lack coverage, a national physicians' group said Tuesday.

The system envisioned by Physicians for a National Health Program would be built on the foundation of the current Medicare program. Unlike Medicare, it would be available to people of all ages and would cover prescription drugs and long-term care.

Supporters of a "single-payer" system say it is the only way to provide health care to all Americans, erase large racial and income disparities in health-care delivery, and minimize billing hassles and administrative expenses.

"We've had 80 years of trying to make the [private] system work, and we have more people uninsured than at any time since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid" in the 1960s, said Dr. David U. Himmelstein, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University.

The Journal of the American Medical Assn. published an article Tuesday laying out the group's proposal, and leading supporters of a single-payer plan -- including Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, and two former U.S. surgeons general, Dr. David Satcher and Dr. Julius Richmond -- presented their arguments at a news conference here.

Himmelstein and Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, another Harvard professor, and their group, which numbers about 8,000 physicians and medical students, have been pushing for a national health insurance program since 1987. The publication of their latest article comes as Medicare reform, rising costs and Democratic presidential candidates have put health-care issues back near the top of the domestic political agenda.

Leaders of private health-care organizations criticized the group's proposal.

"Private health insurance continues to give people better access to quality medical care, and greater control over health decisions affecting their families, than would the worn-out, one-size-fits-all approach put forward yet again today," said Dr. Donald A. Young, president of the Health Insurance Assn. of America.

Dr. Donald J. Palmisano, president of the American Medical Assn., disavowed any connection between the association and the article published in its journal, and called instead for a mix of public and private health-care financing as well as tax credits for the purchase of health insurance.

Himmelstein conceded that Canada's single-payer system has waiting lists for some medical services.

But the country's infant mortality rate is lower than that of the United States, its citizens' average life span is longer, and its per capita spending for health care is roughly half that of its neighbor to the south, he said.

A single-payer system also would address the mounting billing and paperwork frustrations experienced by physicians, Himmelstein said.

"Most of the oaths one hears in the doctors' lounge are no longer Hippocratic," he said.

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