Imagine for a moment that everybody in the country has health insurance and can afford medical care when they need it. What problems would that solve? Chances are, we wouldn’t be faced with medically-induced bankruptcy anymore, and the disparity between the insured and the uninsured in terms of surviving a major illness would be erased. But would we be much healthier overall?
Would having health insurance and affordable access to health care make people walk or bike instead of driving when they only needed to travel a few miles? Would it make them choose the salad instead of the cheeseburger? Would it make them wear their seat belts 100% of the time? Would it make them quit smoking, or not start in the first place? There is no doubt that health insurance and access to care does make a big difference in terms of easing the financial burden associated with illness and injury, and improves the survival odds once a person is ill. But what about prevention? Is prevention something we can truly get from a health care provider? I don’t believe it is. We can get early detection and advice about prevention, but our doctors are only with us for a few minutes a year, while health maintenance is something that we have to do every day.
There are 49 countries with longer life expectancies than we have – we’re a full six years behind the longest-lived country (Macau). I wonder how far up the list we’d move if everyone had affordable access to health care? I’m sure it would have an impact, but there’s so much more to the health care equation that isn’t being addressed by health care reform. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that we do need to find a way to make sure that all Americans have health insurance. But as long as we continue to subsidize the production of corn and soybeans, as long as fast food is so much less expensive than whole fruits and vegetables, as long as a pack of cigarettes costs less than a movie ticket… just having access to health care isn’t going to make us healthier.
Colorado is the only state in the nation with an obesity rate of less than 20%. We have the fourth lowest incidence of death from diabetes. We have the second lowest incidence of death from heart disease. And yet we are not doing a great job of insuring our population – only 14 states have a higher percentage of uninsured residents than we have here in Colorado. Data like this indicates that simply providing health insurance to everyone is not the key to actually improving our overall health (which should really be the end goal of health care reform). Providing real access to health care should indeed be the first step, but it is far from the last step. Personal responsibility plays a huge part in protecting our health, but so do government policies. Hopefully once the dust settles from the 2009 health care reform debates, health care – and the real preservation of health – will continue to be a priority.