SOUNDOFF: Health care must be affordable for all

Washington’s health-care system has serious problems. Health-care costs are skyrocketing in our state, as are the costs of health care insurance, and are threatening access to medical care for Washington consumers.

This is especially true for small employers who provide three out of every four jobs in our state. Nearly half of all small business employees don’t have health insurance.

Too many government mandates — procedures the government requires insurance plans to cover — have forced up costs. Washington has 47 health insurance mandates. Idaho has only seven.

If we want to ensure access to affordable health care for all Washingtonians, several things need to happen.

1. We need to work to improve Washington’s business climate so that businesses will stay, grow and prosper and create new jobs with health benefits.

Most people have access to health insurance through employers. In the past three years, thousands of people have lost their jobs in our state. Many companies have scaled back, moved away or closed altogether. When people lose their jobs, they also lose their employer-provided health insurance benefits. Temporary plans cover employees who are fired, laid-off or downsized. But those are out-of-pocket costs. What good is that if you have little or no income?

At the peak of this job loss, Boeing executive Alan Mulally laid part of the blame on state government, saying unemployment insurance rates are too high, taxes are too high, government permits are too difficult to get, public education needs to improve, there are too many state government regulations (15,126 pages of them) and traffic congestion has to be fixed.

We have made progress in some of those areas and, in fact, we are beginning to see improvements to our state’s economy. However, if we want to increase access to health care, we must address these problems and improve our state’s business climate so employers can create more jobs and provide health care benefits to employees.

2. We need to eliminate excessive government mandates that drive up costs and reduce access and choice.

One size does not fit all – especially when it comes to health care benefits and costs. Washington’s mandates requiring health plans to cover particular and extensive conditions has driven up costs for all, making health insurance unaffordable to many employers, especially small businesses. We must provide flexibility for employers and their employees to have options.

3. We need to distinguish between health insurance and a health-care plan, and provide more options.

Most people think health insurance is their health-care plan. Not so. Insurance is to protect against risk, not for use to offset daily costs. You insure your car hoping you’ll never get into an accident. You don’t use insurance to pay for a flat tire. You also have options from which to choose — full coverage, comprehensive and the minimum requirement of liability insurance. The more coverage you buy, the more expensive it is. Yet in health insurance, we’ve upped expectations and limited options. You may hardly ever see the doctor except for a checkup, yet the government expects you to be fully covered — and that’s what drives up costs. A person in this category might be better served with a smaller catastrophic coverage plan for major needs like a hospital stay, which would be more affordable to the consumer. Again, one size does not fit all. You should have the option of getting the coverage most appropriate for your individual health needs. Whether you choose the full-meal deal or a downsized plan, you should pay more or less, depending upon the options you have chosen, not what the state says you need.

4. We need to take steps to reduce providers’ costs.

Rising pain and suffering settlements and awards are sending doctors’ medical malpractice insurance rates through the roof. As a result, either those costs are passed on to the consumer – or doctors who can no longer afford malpractice rates limit services, leave the state or retire early. With fewer doctors and clinics to provide services, costs increase which affects access for all patients who need health care. If we are to ensure access to affordable health care, the Legislature must pass comprehensive liability and medical malpractice reform next session!

Some have suggested the silver bullet to our health care problems is government-run universal coverage that would provide free health care.

Free, however, is a myth. Taxpayers would pay dearly. When Washington started down that road in 1993, more than $2 billion in new taxes were approved to pay for universal coverage, which fortunately was later repealed. What’s more, universal care removes choice — choice of doctors, choice of services — and most disturbingly, would compromise the ability to receive quality health care on a timely basis.

Do we really want to put government in charge of health care decisions?

Access to affordable health care for all of Washington’s residents is complicated but achievable. We must be willing, however, to take steps that will lower costs, provide more options and reduce regulations that serve as barriers against health care. Let’s begin today so that affordable health care will no longer be a missed opportunity for our citizens.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, serves the 10th Legislative District and is ranking Republican of the House Health Care Committee.

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