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Op-Ed: "It's time for insurance companies to stop putting profits ahead of people"

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Publication Date: 
September 29, 2016

The following Op-Ed was published by Penn Live.

It's time for insurance companies to stop putting profits ahead of people

By Ben Palmquist

The Pennsylvania Insurance Department will soon approve new health insurance rates for 2017.

The rates—which insurance companies want to raise by 20 percent to 50 pecent on most plans—will determine the insurance premiums that almost a million people in Pennsylvania will have to pay, including half a million people on individual marketplace plans and 375,000 employees of small businesses.

Healthcare costs are going up everywhere—the seventeen states that have announced increases so far have raised rates by an average of 25%—but increases of this level are ridiculous.

Most Pennsylvania workers have actually seen their wages decline over the last 15 years. How are people supposed to afford this? 

Politicians and political observers of all stripes admit that these are huge rate increases. They also admit that the departure of the insurance giant Aetna from the insurance marketplaces in Pennsylvania and ten other states reveals deeper problems.

Recently, they've been struggling to respond by explaining how the insurance market could be better managed. They are entirely missing the point.

The problem with the health insurance system in Pennsylvania is the market itself.

Insurance companies exist to make money, plain and simple.

Treating healthcare as a commodity to be bought and sold puts the profit interests of insurance companies squarely in opposition to the fundamental needs of human beings.

When insurance companies aren't making as much money as they want, they have a few options: they can increase their revenues by raising the rates they charge, decrease their costs by bargaining down payments to medical providers and rationing the care people can get by narrowing their networks and imposing deductibles and other fees, or they can just walk away from the market and make their money elsewhere. Right now they're doing all three. 

It would be one thing if this was simply a business matter, but it's not: healthcare is a matter of life and death.

Denying healthcare to people and forcing people to pay impossible prices for something so essential is inhumane, yet the private insurance system does this every single day. 

I recently met someone from Pittsburgh, who I'll call Heather out of respect for her privacy.

Heather has struggled through three bouts of cancer over the last 11 years, and her battles with the private health insurance system have made her struggle far worse. After Heather became too sick to work, she lost the insurance that was tied to her job.

She scraped together $600 a month for an individual plan for herself and her partner, but after a string of increases, last year her premiums jumped by 15% to a price she simply could not afford.

She was forced to switch to a plan with higher deductibles, and last year had $12,000 in medical bills. She and her partner are now in debt, are being hounded by collection agencies, are skipping mental health care and physical therapy they desperately need, and have no idea how they'll be able to pay for healthcare moving forward.

Heather's path through the healthcare system has been particularly hard, but nearly all of us have struggled to get and pay for healthcare at one point or another.

These struggles are not the result of some natural law: they result from the policy choices made by elected officials, which make us pay far more than any other country in the world for a healthcare system that bars millions us from the care we need.

What Pennsylvania needs is a healthcare system that puts people first by guaranteeing that every single person has access to care, and that never forces anyone to pay more than they can afford.

The good news is there's a clear solution: universal, publicly financed healthcare.

A truly universal system would guarantee care for all who need it by basing our care on our medical needs, not on how much money we have.

And by paying for the system through our taxes instead of through private insurance, we could share the costs equitably, making sure that the people and businesses who can afford to pay the most—and who benefit the most from our state—pay the most back into the system.

All this would actually cost us less money in taxes than we pay health insurance companies now, but, more importantly, it's the right thing to do. 

The only way we'll ever end corporate profiteering in our healthcare system is if we, the people of this state, take action.

Let's begin by condemning the rate hikes for what they are: corporate profiteering in a market that's designed to make companies money, not guarantee people healthcare.

Let's talk to our friends, families, coworkers, and neighbors about the rate hikes and our own struggles with the insurance system.

Rather than suffering these indignities in private, let's tell our stories and come together with others to organize for change.

 

Ben Palmquist is a campaign manager with the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. He works with Put People First! PA, a statewide grassroots organization, supporting its "Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign."

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