Posted on October 5, 2009

The lack of universal health care is a mass killer in this country


By Deb Richter
The Progressive Media Project
McClatchy-Tribune Newspapers
Oct. 1, 2009

Nearly 45,000 deaths in the United States each year are attributable to the lack of health insurance, according to a Harvard University study released in September.

That astonishing figure, which appears in the American Journal of Public Health, is a big uptick from the Institute of Medicine’s finding seven years ago that 18,000 people die each year because they lack insurance and thus have less access to care.

The Harvard Medical School researchers found that an uninsured person’s risk of death is 40 percent higher than his or her privately insured counterpart. Looked at another way, every 12 minutes a person dies unnecessarily because he or she doesn’t have health coverage.

As startling as this 45,000 figure is, I fear it underestimates the problem.

In my 20 years of practice as a family physician, I have encountered dozens of cases where the main contributing factor to a person’s death was the lack of health insurance for most of their lives.

I recall one family that lost three members this way.

George was 21 when he died of complications of juvenile diabetes that he’d had since the age of 2. Whenever George worked for a while, he lost his Medicaid. This meant he could no longer afford to test his blood sugars, they would get out of control, he would get sick, have to stop working, he would spend down, then qualify for Medicaid again. This went on for the three years I knew him.

His older sister Tina also had juvenile diabetes from the age of 6. Her situation was the same - working, losing insurance, getting sicker, not working, getting Medicaid etc. Tina was pregnant at the time of George’s death. Her poorly controlled diabetes made her a very high risk for complications in pregnancy. The baby was born three months prematurely and died in the intensive care unit one month later. Tina’s health worsened after that and within one year she died in post-op after heart bypass surgery. She was 25.

Then there’s Russell - also a diabetic, also on and off insurance. He died at age 37 of diabetic kidney failure. He was uninsured for years.

Another case - Vivian - had warning signs for cancer for years. She finally qualified for insurance but died two weeks into the workup of a pulmonary embolus (a complication of pelvic cancers).

I am only one clinician, and yet I have witnessed dozens of cases of people who died of preventable illnesses - preventable illnesses that could have been treated had these patients possessed uninterrupted, seamless coverage for needed treatments over their lives.

Take my experiences and multiply them 700,000 times for the number of physicians in this country and you arrive at a lot more than 45,000 deaths a year due to lack of insurance.

It is time that our nation join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee seamless health care coverage to every man, woman and child in America.

In other words, it’s time to enact single-payer health care - Medicare for All.


Deb Richter practices family medicine in Montpelier, Vt., and is a past president of Physicians for a National Health Program ( The writer wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the author at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703; e-mail:; Web site: For information on PMP’s funding, please visit

This article was prepared for The Progressive Media Project and is available to MCT subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.
© 2009, Deb Richter