America the outlier – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

I recently spoke – alongside other national consumer organizations – to the consumer specialists in the state attorneys general offices. These are the folks who are hugely important in representing the interests of consumers in the 50 states, fighting scams and going after consumer fraud.

At this session, I listed the consumer victories we’ve won during the Obama administration and before that under President Bush (top-to-bottom reforms of the Consumer Product Safety Act and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). But for me, the most incredible consumer victory is the landmark passage of a national healthcare bill for American citizens, the law known as the Affordable Care Act. All the while I was aware that a number of state Attorneys General office represented in that room, in spite of their advocacy on behalf of consumers, are behind lawsuits to overturn the ACA. Why would state AG’s want to fight against the first bill ever to guarantee healthcare coverage to most consumers? This seems contrary to their role as defenders and advocates for consumers. In addition, surely the richest country in the world can afford to provide healthcare to our citizens.

Which put me in mind of an article I read recently. Fifteen percent of Americans have no healthcare coverage. But many far less affluent countries are moving to provide medical insurance coverage for all. China, for example, is on track to provide healthcare to 90 percent of its residents and its population dwarfs ours by almost 4 to 1. (According to the World Bank, China has 1 billion 300 million people.) Mexico has just completed an 8-year drive for universal coverage that has dramatically expanded Mexicans’ access to life saving treatments for diseases like leukemia and breast cancer.

Thailand’s GNP is 1/5 of the US, and 99 percent of Thais have health insurance. Rwanda and Ghana – two of the world’s poorest nations – are working to create insurance networks to cover their citizens. Countries are coming to the conclusion that for their long-term economic viability, universal healthcare is critical. They believe that remaining competitive globally and sustaining economic growth will depend on universal healthcare for citizens.

How does that work? Well, for example, the Chinese government found that citizens were saving excessively to cover healthcare costs and weren’t spending much-needed money to stimulate the economy. In Mexico, poor families who had to pull a child from school because of health would have to spend scarce assets – livestock or equipment — to cover healthcare costs. That reduced the viability of their operations. Mexico also found its citizens were being driven into bankruptcy because of healthcare costs. The same is true for the United States! at one point half those facing bankruptcy from credit card debt incurred that debt paying for unexpected healthcare costs. According to the experts, providing universal healthcare coverage is preventing millions of people worldwide from financial ruin.

So it really does makes you wonder why state AGs are fighting this basic protection and why the U.S. population is deadlocked over the issue. In March, a Kaiser poll showed that 41 percent of Americans support the ACA, while 40 percent oppose. A former World Bank Vice President, David de Ferranti, said about the United States: “We are really an outlier.” When you factor in what other far less affluent nations are providing near universal healthcare for their citizens, de Ferranti’s comments seem like an understatement. We can only hope that the ACA survives the challenge in the Supreme Court. If it does not, and the individual mandate is struck, we should go back to the drawing table and provide single payer insurance system for all citizens.