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Chenault: We can do better in health debate

Between reading Mark Trahant’s columns on health care and hearing the onslaught of daily news reports about Republican opposition to any success by President Obama in advancing the health care of the American people, I found myself thinking, what can be done about this important and complex issue?

I’m not a health care expert and have no magic wand but surely something can be done. I do know the political stall tactics and media maneuvering to “take down” and discredit our first African American president is an affront to every mother, every child, every individual and family who deserve access to health care but cannot afford it.

Maybe what bothers me about this was a recent report on the decline of President Obama’s favorable ratings and how the health care debate is dragging his ratings down. Apparently, Americans are concerned about the cost of changes to the health care system as well as any reduction of coverage in their own policies and this has been fueled by misinformation by opponents of health care reform.

How many people do you know who have been forced to ignore lumps or endure pain because they don’t have a doctor, or who wait for donations and funding for public health clinics to get needed biopsies, treatment or surgery?

By challenging the status quo in the health care industry, President Obama has enraged politicians, lobbyists, pharmaceutical companies, the for-profit hospital industry and insurance companies who annually report record profits. Those who have the privilege of affordable health care see no reason for others without insurance to want the same. It’s the old, “I’ve got mine, who cares about you” tactic. As a result, President Obama is under attack by those who want him to fail because he cares about those who need health care and those who voted for change.

Conservative pundits, politicians and millionaire radio jocks are spinning the politics of fear about this initiative to make sure there is no expansion of health care for the working class, unemployed or poor of this nation while individuals and families are being forced into bankruptcy because they have inadequate insurance or no coverage. How many people do you know who have been forced to ignore lumps or endure pain because they don’t have a doctor, or who wait for donations and funding for public health clinics to get needed biopsies, treatment or surgery? We have to do better than this.

For nearly a decade, the safety net of health services has been eroded by declines in state and federal funding while the costs of health care skyrockets. Over the past eight years, the Bush Congress and state legislatures have justified these cuts by arguing tax breaks to corporations who ship companies abroad and to the wealthy, promising they would create jobs. Instead, these decisions worsened conditions.

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The health care options for ordinary people who struggle financially are reduced and, in some cases, have been eliminated during this era of trickle-down economics. Funding over the past decade to federal, state and county clinics providing care to lower income families has declined. IHS is consistently underfunded. Funding for Urban Indian Health clinics is no better. Assistance for programs that provide limited health care services to our elderly has been slashed. Nonprofit hospitals, swamped by the record numbers of uninsured seeking care are closing their doors because they cannot break even, leaving patients behind. Public hospitals closed at alarming rates during this time, further compromising the availability of care for vulnerable populations. State mental hospitals were closed and are continuing to close in order to protect state revenues. Diabetes prevention programs, alcohol and drug treatment, HIV/AIDS care, and maternal health care for women, infants and children are all continually targeted for reductions. Eligibility requirements for state Medicaid programs and children’s health programs were tightened to reduce demand.

It is impossible to correct the lack of investment over the last decade in the health and well-being of our citizens without costs, without consequences, or without change. I’m an ordinary tribal person concerned about the extraordinary challenges facing our nation now and health care is one of those issues. As I’ve thought about the resistance to change being mounted for all the wrong reasons, I’ve wondered whether there’s another way to reach the desired goal.

Rather than waste time on convincing those who will never agree with this administration and will block everything President Obama proposes and because there are apparently no American insurance companies who believe they have a responsibility to craft health coverage plans to meet the needs of citizens today, maybe it’s time to cut the losses. These individuals can opt out of any coverage by any county, state or federal health care programs and pay the escalating rates needed by the insurance and hospital industry to continue making record profits.

To ensure ordinary people have access to health care, perhaps increased investments by federal and state governments in true not for profit hospitals, public health hospitals and clinics in rural and urban areas might be a first step towards quality and affordable health care for every person. Funding these programs, rather than dragging screaming and resistant stakeholders in, would ensure access to preventive health care, community based services and programs offering real care for those dumped by for-profit and state hospitals under practices of the prior administration.

If targeted funding and incentives to hospitals and clinics that provide primary health care services for the average American was increased at the state and federal level, would we be better off? By cutting out the middle man and paying for the actual delivery of services, would we improve access to quality care? Would the average citizen be willing to earmark one percent of their tax dollars to financing such a system and would this be an adequate contribution to supplement funding for such a system?

If we were to increase the incentives of college students to go into health care as a professional career and work in these hospitals and clinics, would we increase the quality of care in these institutions, including IHS and Urban Indian Health clinics? If K-12 schools were required to offer preventive health education, to return to a curriculum which included daily physical education and nutritious meals, would we see a difference?

It’s time to find solutions and to hear ideas about the changes needed at every level because the availability of affordable health care affects all of us. Drowning out the possibility of change by screaming megaphones and shouting matches in public forums denies those affected the hope that is needed to make it another day. We can do better than that.

Dr. Venida Chenault, Prairie Band Potawatomi/Kickapoo, is completing a visiting scholar appointment at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare on violence and abuse against indigenous women.