Even reformers don’t like Obamacare: a conversation with Dr. Quentin Young

By Phil Kadner
Southtown Star (Chicago), Oct. 17, 2013

The Republicans are right. The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is a mess.

The Democrats are right. The nation desperately needed health care reform, and millions of Americans had no insurance.

Obamacare became what it is today because of both political parties and pressure from the health insurance industry, the pharmaceutical manufacturers and the public.

Reasonable people should have been able to hammer out a workable compromise. But these are not reasonable times. People are for things or against them.

And even the “winners” sometimes feel like “losers.”

Dr. Quentin Young falls into one of those groups, maybe both.

Young, 90, is the chairman and co-founder of the Health and Policy Research Group and has been battling for a single-payer, universal health care system for more than 30 years.

“It’s what every other modern industrialized country in the world has,” Young told me during a telephone conversation on Wednesday. “Health care is a human right, and I don’t understand why people in this country still refuse to accept that. In every other nation, that’s how they look at it.”

Chairman of medicine at Cook County Hospital from 1972 to 1981, Young was president of the American Public Health Association in 1988 and knew President Barack Obama before he became a U.S. senator.

“Back then, he favored single-payer health care,” Young said. “I don’t know what happened, but something changed his mind. By the time he was president he no longer was an advocate of single-payer health insurance, and that was a mistake.

“There are 16 million to 20 million poor people in this country who will not be covered by the Affordable Care Act. You can go broke or die without health insurance.

“Sixty-two percent of people who file for personal bankruptcy in this country go bankrupt not because they can’t manage their money, but because of an illness in their family.”

Controlling medical costs is a key to providing national health care, as far as Young is concerned, and the Affordable Care Act isn’t going to do that.

“From 1950 until now, the cost of health care in this country increased from $22 billion to $2.7 trillion,” he said. “You can’t sustain that. Every other (advanced) nation controls its health care costs through single-payer health insurance, their governments, but we don’t so we’re paying more and we’re getting less.”

According to the World Health Organization, the United States spent more on health care per capita ($8,608) and more on health care as a percentage of gross domestic product (17.9 percent) than any other nation in 2011. That was before Obamacare.

“And one of the reasons we spend more is that billions of dollars are made by private health insurance companies. That does nothing to improve the health of the average American,” Young said. “It’s just profit for the companies that provide health insurance.

“But this thing (Obamacare) won’t change that. The private insurance companies are still going to make their profits.”

Young is quick to point out that he doesn’t want to be associated with the Tea Party Republicans who have been denouncing Obamacare.

“At least under this plan, millions of Americans who had no insurance will get insurance, people with pre-existing conditions can now buy insurance and children are covered longer under their parents’ policies,” Young said. “It’s better than what we had. But I’m not sure, long term, that it’s going to work because it doesn’t control the cost of health care.”

That view of Obamacare’s financial picture is similar to one expressed to me this week by U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd).

Lipinski said that unless major changes are made to the Affordable Care Act, he fears it will not be financially sustainable.

And that’s one of the core arguments of the Tea Party Republicans, who contend that Obamacare will be the economic ruin of the country.

Of course, those Tea Partiers have never favored universal health care and have never talked seriously about controlling health care costs.

While they blame Obamacare for employers dropping their medical insurance plans, the Tea Party faithful ignore the fact that more than 1 million working Americans had been losing their health insurance each year before Obamacare was passed.

In 2012, before the U.S. Supreme Curt ruling on health care reform, 9 percent of employers planned to drop their health insurance benefit, according to a report by consulting firm Deloitte.

Among those who were not dropping the coverage, most said they planned to make workers pick up more of the costs through higher premiums, co-pays and deductibles.

Yet, the majority of Americans, fearful of socialized medicine, isn’t prepared to back single-payer national health care.

“The insurance industry spent millions of dollars scaring the hell out of them,” Young said.

There’s some truth to that, but I think most Americans are happy with their current health coverage.

But they know that employers could stop offering health insurance, or they could lose their jobs and their insurance, and they wanted to hedge their bets.

Obamacare sounded good, even if they didn’t understand the details, but now many have come to believe the details are a mess.

Lipinski said his fellow Democrats in Congress are finally coming to the realization that the Affordable Care Act is seriously flawed and needs to be changed.

But Republicans seem just as convinced that the law is fatally flawed and needs to be overturned.

“I believe there are some areas of agreement between us that we can work on now,” Lipinski told me.

I’m not as hopeful. All the forces that shaped this deformed law are still at work. Too few Americans understand them.

Of this I’m sure, the battle over health care reform isn’t going away.