Editorial: Right heart, wrong hand

Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s All Kids initiative should be lauded if only for the good intentions to provide underprivileged children with health care. But it is nothing but a band-aid to a hemorrhaging wound at the heart of the American health care system that teeters toward catastrophic collapse.

Costs of adequate health care has been one of the most crushing burdens on the shoulders of Illinoisans and the rest of Americans for decades. $1.7 trillion, or 15.3 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, was spent on health in 2003. Yet 45.8 million Americans, 1.7 million of whom are in Illinois, were uninsured in 2004. More than 20 million working adults cannot afford health insurance, according to a study released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in April 27.

Blagojevich’s plan, which ultimately seeks to provide affordable health insurance to 253,000 uninsured children, is nothing but a state-subsidized health care plan. In principle, families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but cannot pay for private insurance will benefit greatly by paying significantly less than the market price.

But it is highly questionable whether the state will be able to afford this new initiative. The program is expected to cost the state $45 million in its first year of implementation, with an expected enrollment of 50,000. The price tag will surely rise as the program expands to the rest of the children. Juxtaposed with a sluggish state economy, it is hard to see how the state would pay for the program.

Proponents of the All Kids program have argued that the transformation of the state Medicaid program into a “managed care plan,” much like the private HMO firms, will free up enough funds to finance it. But the state has already run up a hefty tab of $1.4 billion in unpaid Medicaid bills, which have crippled many local pharmacies – many of which can no longer afford to serve Medicaid customers.

The Illinois Pharmacists Association’s survey found that about half of its membership borrowed money to stay in business. Some pharmacists have paid income taxes for the Medicaid bills that the state hadn’t even serviced. And one family-owned pharmacy chain in northeastern Illinois has reportedly received $6.27 of the $2 million owed by the state.

If the state government can find any money from the restructuring, it should be concentrating on paying back as much money it owes as possible. There are already too many pharmacies that refuse to serve Medicaid customers.

The biggest problem with the program, however, is that it does not change anything at the fundamental level. Americans pay more for health care than any other people in the world, yet the quality of the services they receive is nowhere near the best it could be. This cannot simply be blamed on the health care industry. Health care professionals and small town hospitals, constantly under the risk of malpractice suits, are forced to pay exorbitant premiums to protect themselves or move to another state with kinder laws. Many small town hospitals and clinics have also closed because they couldn’t insure themselves. And several insurance companies have stopped offering insurance for the health care industry because of occasional but astronomical judgments against their clients. What is needed is a complete overhaul of the health care system, not a stopgap measure from a state with limited resources.

The plight of children who do not get the medical attention they need certainly should be addressed. But the state simply lacks the resources to launch such an ambitious program. If Blagojevich truly seeks to solve the problem, he should take strides to pressure the federal legislature to take action. The American health care system is in too grave a condition for a state with limited abilities to operate on.