By Bill McCabe – As published in the Hudson Valley News

Very good friends of mine own and run a small family farm but have had to go without health insurance because of the outrageously high premiums charged for individuals. Another couple I know has a different situation: the husband recently retired from a long career and is now covered by Medicare, but his wife has no health insurance for the first time in their married life. An individual policy is just too prohibitive to afford, so she will be among the uninsured until she qualifies for Medicare.

The son of one of my neighbors graduated from college and was fortunate to get a good job in his profession, but without health benefits. While in college the young man was covered by his university’s group plan, and after graduation he was covered under COBRA by his father’s employer’s Family Health Plan, until the COBRA limits terminated that coverage. Now, like the farming couple and the retiree’s wife, he has no insurance. These are middle class people.

All across the United States insured people are being dropped by their insurers or are being forced to drop insurance because of excessive rate increases such as the proposed 35% increase by Anthem Blue Cross in California. Others, who could afford high rates, are denied policies because of pre-existing conditions, are denied treatments, or are dropped because of newly developed conditions. The economist Robert Reich reports that the largest health insurance corporations made a profit of $12.2 billion in 2009, representing a 56% increase over 2008. Where is their corporate conscience?

It is estimated by the National Bureau of Economic Research that 47 million people in the United States, including 9 million children, lack basic medical insurance, and another 40 million are either under-insured or have no choice due to insurance company monopolies. Here we are in the 21st century, and we stand out as the only industrialized nation in the world without some type of comprehensive health insurance program for its citizens. After nearly 100 years of talk in Washington, we remain without any comprehensive plan. Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt spoke of the need for national health insurance, and Presidents Truman, Nixon, and Clinton all made serious proposals that succumbed to divisions and discord in Congress. President Obama and so many members of Congress were elected based on their promises to reform health insurance.

The time has come to give our people access to basic health care insurance through a public option, allowing the uninsured an opportunity to buy a basic care policy while allowing those already insured to continue existing coverage. Those who have the public option plan could buy supplementary insurance, as is done by those covered by Medicare. Providing a public option is really a matter of public health. Those of us who can presently afford insurance still have contact with those around us in public places. Tuberculosis still exists in the U S, and it spreads quickly. We all have a vested interest in the good health of the general public.

As Congress tries to reconcile differences between the House and Senate bills, the momentum for passage of a bill has stalled. President Obama deserves much credit for finally stepping in and using his influence to move the process to closure. His recommended reconciliation bill would reduce costs for small businesses, would allow children to remain in parents’ group plans until age 26, would prohibit insurance caps on insurance payments, would automate insurance claims, would allow those with pre-existing conditions to obtain insurance, and would prohibit cancellations after an insured person gets sick. Given the threat of filibuster in the Senate, submitting a reconciliation bill is the best option – an option that President George W. Bush used five times when he was in office.

The uninsured depend on emergency care, costing nearly $60 billion each year, three quarters of which is paid by the federal government. That is a huge cost that all of us are paying for in our taxes and in our insurance premiums right now. If these people were insured, either under a “public option” or a “required “policy such as Massachusetts has, they would have access to earlier, less costly care and preventative care which would insure a healthier population.

Economists estimate that presently, without reform, the US spends $2.5 trillion, over 17% of its gross domestic product, on the costs of health care (twice that spent by other industrialized countries), and our costs are rising each year. Morally and financially we cannot afford not to reform.

President Obama’s Healthcare Summit with Congressional leaders last Thursday (2/25) provided the nation with a civil exchange of Democratic and Republican perspectives attempting to find common ground on how to improve the current system. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the current House and Senate bills will expand access to health insurance as well as lower costs, eliminate waste, and reduce the federal deficit. Let’s get it done. As President Obama stated, “We cannot wait another fifty years.”