Ongoing Debate on Health Care Reform Fails to Consider Financial Perils of Medical Debt

The American political scene is currently fraught with glaring contradictions in the public perception of health care reform. Even Americans who are drawing public benefits from much-debated “entitlement” programs from Social Security and Medicare to Medicaid support candidates calling for the abolition of those programs. In part, this is due to the poor public relations with which health care reform was presented to the American people in 2010 as well as a failure to explain that the real driving issue underlying the reform is personal financial protection.

Medical Debt Drives High Rate of Personal Bankruptcy

It is incredibly easy for someone to be hospitalized for nothing more than “tests,” with no serious injuries or diagnosed infection, and to walk out with medical bills in excess of $50,000. Coming out of what is now being called the “Great Recession,” approximately 62 percent of all personal bankruptcies filed in this country are directly caused by medical debt. A single illness without adequate health insurance coverage can destroy a family’s finances for years to come.

Currently there are some 50 million Americans who have no health insurance of any kind, including the 9.3 million who lost their health benefits during the recession along with their jobs. If the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is allowed to progress to full implementation in 2014, approximately 95 percent of the national population would be covered.

The stipulation for mandatory health insurance is, however, one of the most hated aspects of health care reform, and its constitutionality will be reviewed by the Supreme Court this March in the case of Florida v. Department of Health and Human Services, No. 11-400.

Supreme Court Review Spurs Attitude of Delay

The effect of the Supreme Court review, which is happening concurrently with the 2012 presidential election has been a massive delay of key aspects of the Affordable Care Act. Many conservative states that support Republican candidates who vow to see “Obamacare” repealed have tabled any efforts to implement the federally mandated health care exchanges that are designed to create a competitive insurance marketplace by January 1, 2014.

If those states do not meet the 2013 deadline to create exchanges, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will be forced to take charge of the process, further increasing the burden on the federal government and setting the stage for even more state-federal power struggles.

Health Care Reform Suffers from Bad Press

Supporters of health care reform say the process is the victim of a vicious smear campaign by radio talk show hosts and conservative political commentators who have convinced Americans that the reforms either have no bearing on their lives or will actually cut them out of responsible health care. A long-standing rumor, for instance, is the idea that the law creates so-called “death panels” that will cut health-care expenses by essentially murdering old people.

Because the act was handled as an “insider” effort elicited to gain the support of the insurance industry, the medical community, and Congress, the legislation lacked a more broad-based and educational effort to build a broader public support base. In truth, health care reform in the wake of the Great Recession is more vital than ever to the financial interests of all Americans who, whether they realize it or not, are likely living one major illness away from financial ruin.