The Future of American Health

Last Monday, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3962, also known as the Affordable Health Care for America Act, a hard-won victory for President Obama who has made it the top priority of his presidential agenda.

The bill only passed, however, after House Democrats made immense compromises with House Republicans over some of its policies, with one of the more provocative issues discussed being abortion.

The bill, now awaiting passage or dismissal by the Senate, restricts the use of government money to fund abortions, thanks in large part to lobbying by Catholic bishops.

In addition to this, the new passed bill varies from its predecessor, America’s Affordable Health Choices of 2009, in a few key areas: it prohibits insurance companies from refusing coverage or charging more coverage for people based on medical histories or gender, second, it increases MediCare coverage for 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, and third, it repeals the exemption of insurance companies from anti-trust laws.

It will also still include what has been the primary point of contention between Democrats and Republicans – the public option, or a federally funded and federally-run insurance provider.

According to a fact sheet published last month by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, the new legislation would provide access to health insurance to the nearly 4 million of the 6.4 million non-elderly population who were uninsured in 2007.

“Just enacting the reforms agreed on in all current proposals would secure access to health insurance for millions of Californians,” said Shana Alex Lavarreda, one of the writers of the fact sheet and the director of insurance studies at the Center. “It would be a dramatic change for the better.”

The University of California is also a federally-funded institution which provides health services to thousands of people in California. As the fourth-largest health care provider in California, UC discharges over 140,000 inpatients and makes over 3.8 million out-patient visits annually. Even then, 40 percent of its patients have either no health insurance or rely on Medi-Cal.

The UC system also trains over 12,000 health care practitioners each year. With the newly-opened School of Nursing at UC Davis, it intends to blunt the impact of California’s expected shortfall of over 17,000 physicians by 2015 and over 116,000 nurses by 2020.

The UC also trains about 60 percent of all medical students in California and is often the site of the only Level one trauma centers regionally. In addition, the UC is heavily invested in research, and the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center at UCI is the leading innovator in stem cell research on the west coast.

To say that the UC has a large stake in health care reform would be to grossly understate the gravity of this legislation.

The UC published a Statement of Principles on Health Care Reform on Monday, outlining its considerations for potential health care reform. It outlined the UC’s primary considerations in the health care debate: the affordability and access of quality health care for California’s millions.

The statement, while pledging the UC’s support for health care reform, insisted that any reform legislation brought before it comprehensively addresses the often opposing imperatives of containing rising costs and providing quality care.

While the creation of the public option and affordable (and mandatory) insurance for all would create a vast demand for doctors and nurses, it would also bring in the necessary funding UCI needs for its medical facilities while alleviating the costs of UC-provided student health insurance.

“UC is a large health care provider in a competitive environment, a major employer facing rising health care costs, and an educational institution comprised of academicians, many of whom hold divergent views.” Wrote UC representatives in the report. “UC can therefore play a crucial role as an honest broker to health care industries and stakeholders affected by health care reform.”

UC Irvine in particular has taken the initiative in addressing healthcare reform, prompting this brazen headline from OC Weekly: “UC Irvine Seeks To Cut Through Health care Reform Bullshit.”

On Oct 1, UCI Center For Health Care Management & Policy at the Paul Merage School of Business held a one-day conference, titled “Comparative Effectiveness: Lessons from Abroad.”

The conference invited speakers from Britain, Canada, Germany and the U.S. to discuss the effectiveness of different health care policies with the U.S. speakers discussing the implications of similar systems in our country.

UCI’s primary method of addressing health care reform is to spread as much awareness and understanding as possible, to inform the public about the implications of the bill at UCI and in the UC system, and to assure the public that UCI is prepared to deal with whatever legislation may come its way.

One UCI student, third-year public health major Benji Zachariah, is particularly apt to participate in the health care debate because he, along with six others, spent their summer providing free health care to villagers in Yunnan, China. Zachariah was drawn specifically to public health because it dealt with the social aspect of medicine.

“I definitely feel that [universal health care] is a necessity. You know, Western medicine saves so many lives, but at the same time we are so behind other countries even in things like life expectancy. We may have the most technologically advanced health care and maybe the best response, but to be honest, the health of the U.S. as a whole isn’t as great as other countries. Our obesity levels are out the roof,” said Zachariah.

On the current health of Americans, Zachariah brought up the fact that current American habits are fairly unhealthy – a love of fast food, a fast-paced life and the prevalence of smoking to name a few. While universal health care might be a boon to millions who are uninsured but require medical attention, it could further degenerate American health.

“People are so comfortable eating what they are eating, they realize ‘Oh now I have my free universal health care,” maybe they’ll just be more lazy,” Zachariah said. “In a sense, I think that could happen, but I can’t really say because I haven’t seen it. In other countries, I’ve seen that it worked out fine. They have universal health care, they don’t need to pay their bills, but they’re also really healthy.”

The bill is currently going through the Senate and a vote will come to the fore only after the Congressional Budget Office has analyzed the bill and calculated its costs. President Obama is hopeful that Senate will vote on the bill by the end of the year.