2 Ways Government Can Play a Positive Role in Healthcare

I am tired of hearing about the negative role of government, especially as it relates to the Affordable Care Act. I lived for almost 20 years without health insurance and avoided the doctor except for an emergency. Unless you have experienced collection letters and the follow-up calls, you have no idea what they do to self-esteem and confidence. Thankfully, my wife and I are now both covered under Medicare.

I thought of two examples in which the government could take a more active role in healthcare to improve the lives of people. One is a federal example and the other is at the state level.

I recently watched a CBS news report that talked about a new life-saving treatment for a fatal form of hepatitis C acquired by veterans in Vietnam. The drug costs only $1,400 to produce a 12-week treatment, but is sold at a retail price of $84,000. It's an effective drug, but the Department of Veterans Affairs, even with a 50 percent discount, can’t afford the price tag. So there’s a lottery to determine who gets the treatment.

The situation is even worse for Medicare. Congress has barred Medicare from negotiating with drug makers to get lower prices. While the pharmaceutical companies make a fortune—Gilead, the company that makes the hepatitis C drug treatments, took in $24.9 billion in revenues in 2014, compared to $11.2 billion for 2013—people suffer and die. The V.A. and Medicare are taxpayer-funded public programs. Don’t we value the lives of our veterans over the excessive profits of corporate drug manufacturers? If so, the federal government needs to stand up on behalf of the American people and take a stronger role in reining in for-profit drug companies.

Government needs to take an active role at the state level also. There are many poor health plans being offered on the MNsure exchange, like ones with $6,000+ deductibles. High deductible plans are more like buying a lottery ticket than insurance. No one on a fixed income will be able to utilize such policies because they are unaffordable. And so people won’t stay healthy. A high percentage of these unaffordable plans are being subsidized with public money. All we are doing is enriching the insurance companies at taxpayer expense.

But there is another option, building on a proven public program that’s been working for low- and moderate-income Minnesotans for more than 20 years: MinnesotaCare. Currently, MinnesotaCare offers a standard policy that has known products for a fixed amount of money. The premiums are reasonable, the deductible is non-existent, the co-pays are low, and the coverage is excellent. We need to extend MinnesotaCare as a public option for all folks in the state. The premiums could be based on income levels, which would expand the pool, allowing for the state to negotiate less expensive rates.

The Health Care Financing Task Force is meeting on Dec. 18 to hear the recommendations of three work groups, including one entitled, “Barriers to Access.” Farmers, rural residents and independent small business owners are facing health insurance rate increases of up to 50 percent on the individual, commercial market. Task force members and legislators need to offer a public option, like MinnesotaCare—a simple, affordable plan with a standard set of benefits that actually provides affordable and quality healthcare.

This is about taking the health of our people in this state seriously and valuing people over corporate profits.

Al Kruse is a member of the Land Stewardship Project's Healthcare Organizing Committee. Kruse worked for 10 years as a program manager with Federal Jobs Programs, and almost 20 years as an independent sales representative. He currently is president of the Marshall Lyon County Library Foundation and is vice- president of the Literacy Volunteers of Southwest Minnesota. Kruse and his wife, Linda, are also volunteers with Senior Linkage. For more on LSP's Affordable Healthcare for All work, see our web page.