Opinion: America Needs A Choice

The health insurance industry is pulling out all of the stops, especially behind the scenes, to kill a central and crucial element of President Obama's health care reform proposal: the creation of a public insurance option. As it has done every time any kind of reform has been proposed that might threaten insurers' profitability, the industry is now feeding "talking points" and other misleading propaganda to its business and political allies to scare Americans away from the best solution for reducing health care costs and guaranteeing that nearly 50 million uninsured people in this country finally have quality, affordable health insurance coverage.
I worked inside the health-insurance industry for nearly 20 years, heading corporate communications at Humana Inc. and CIGNA Corp. I left my job a year ago, stunned after watching thousands of uninsured and underinsured men and women stand in long lines on a rainy weekend in rural southwest Virginia to get free health care from medical volunteers. I knew then that I could not, in good conscience, continue to be an insurance industry spokesman during yet another disingenuous campaign to kill what I know is good health care reform.
The indisputable fact is that under the current broken system Americans are paying more and more for less and less health care coverage. Families fortunate enough to have health insurance have seen their premiums soar this past decade to an average of more than $12,000 a year. It now costs so much that one out of every six - ONE OUT OF SIX - people in the United States lacks health insurance.
The numbers of the uninsured have risen with every job loss, as have the costs to all of us when the uninsured get sick and end up in hospital emergency rooms. And always, whether insured or uninsured, there is that gnawing fear that you are just one health emergency away from financial ruin.
The American people, who are living every day with this worsening health care crisis, have rebuffed the sharpest of insurance industry attacks and overwhelming support setting up a public insurance plan. Here's why they insist that the public option be part of any reform legislation that reaches President Obama's desk:
  • A public insurance option will promote competition
    Right now, a handful of for-profit companies dominate the insurance market, jacking up premiums and severely limiting consumer choice. These companies often cherry-pick the healthy customers they want while charging outrageous rates or denying coverage to people who most need it. Having a real choice in insurance plans will let consumers vote with their feet if their health plan, public or private, no longer works for them.
  • A public insurance option will provide stability
    There are real disruptions when insurers move in and out of markets, change what they will or won't cover or contract with different providers. A public insurance plan will always be there. You can change jobs, start your own business, even move, without worrying about where you will get health insurance.
  • A public health insurance plan will promote efficiency
    Current sky-high health care costs can't be sustained. They are hurting individuals, businesses and the government, and dragging down the country's economy. A public insurance option can slow cost growth and force private insurers to be more efficient. If private insurers controlled cost growth as much as Medicare has done over the past decade, families and employers wouldn't be facing the pricey premiums that exist today.
  • A public health insurance plan advances innovation
    Private insurers have very little incentive to develop modern illness management programs or to share with their competitors when health care improvements are achieved. A public insurance plan, as has been the experience at Medicare and the Veterans Administration, could revolutionize the health care industry by example, advancing the use of electronic medical records, creating incentives to improve the integration of delivery systems and setting up better ways to measure the quality of care.
    But private, for-profit insurance companies don't want to change the way they do business, or cut into their profits, or be held accountable for their actions. They are trying to stop a public insurance plan from being included in health care reform legislation, and they are spreading scary warnings that don't make any sense. In one breath, they claim the government can't run anything; in the next, they say a public insurance option will put them out of business.
    To quote President Obama: "That's not logical."
    Americans shouldn't have to go broke to have good health care. They shouldn't be priced out of health insurance coverage or live in fear of getting really sick. The public health insurance option is the only way to significantly address these concerns and reduce health care costs. Let's give the for-profit folks a little healthy competition.