I am a lucky man, some might say blessed, as earlier this year I had a heart attack and survived — physically and financially.
I'm fortunate to have a comprehensive health insurance plan. Yet even someone with good insurance can't go through a medical calamity without getting a glimpse of what lies over the precipice of financial and medical disaster.
At a fundraiser in March for my children's Jewish day school, I found myself on the floor of a men's room, gasping for air as a result of blockage to one of the arteries to my heart. The emergency-response personnel wanted to take me to the nearest hospital, but I was fortunate to have my wife — and advocate — by my side. She objected, demanding that they take me to the hospital with a better cardiology department and where my medical records were readily available. The personnel reluctantly agreed; and 70 minutes after I arrived at the hospital, I had three stents implanted.
Ten days later, I had successful bypass surgery and was on the road to recovery, thanks to the highly competent health professionals who worked on my case.
Two weeks at the hospital resulted in a bill that was well into the six-figure range. After my discharge, I began receiving large bills every few days — bills of $20,000 or $30,000 at a time. The notices on the bottom of the invoices indicated that my insurance carrier had refused to pay because the policy had been terminated.
Actually, my policy was still in effect, and I was able to rectify the situation. However, not everyone wins such fights with insurance companies.
Millions of Americans are not so lucky. They may receive inadequate care or have their insurance company deny their claims. Considering the trouble I had, I can only imagine what happens to the millions who are uninsured or underinsured.
More and more Americans are denied high-quality, affordable health care, and the insurance companies continue to refuse coverage when it is most needed. Every day, thousands more lose their insurance. Even for those with it, there is no cap on what companies can force patients to pay in out-of-pocket expenses, which leads many families into bankruptcy.
The expense of health insurance is astronomical. According to a New England Journal of Medicine article that appeared earlier in this decade, administrative costs alone in the United States totaled $294 billion and accounted for 31 percent of total health care spending. By contrast, administrative expenses in Canada amounted only to 16.7 percent of health care spending.
If we do nothing now, health expenditures could grow from $2.5 trillion to more than $7 trillion in 2025.
Despite the astronomical amounts of money dedicated to health care, the life expectancy here is 75 years for a man and 80 for a woman — lower than Cuba, Israel, Japan and more than 30 other countries, according to the U.N.'s World Health Organization. Still, the United States spends $6,714 per capita, while Israel and Japan each spend less than 40 percent of that amount.
The inequity and injustice of the system leads many in the Jewish community to believe that there is a moral component to health reform. More than virtually any other issue, there is broad consensus for reform — from Agudath Israel of America to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. It's a matter of justice, no matter where you fall on the Jewish denominational spectrum.
Stan Dorn, a National Jewish Democratic Council senior fellow, has written that our tradition "teaches that a society is measured in God's sight largely by how its most vulnerable members fare." All of us — no matter which political party we are from — are living with the consequences of this broken system. The passage of the health care bill out of the U.S. House of Representatives was a step toward fixing this system, but there is still much further to go.
While we may not all agree on the solution, we must all agree that the time has come for comprehensive reform of our health insurance system.
Ira N. Forman is CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council.