Moderated by Tom Sabulis
By Ricardo Azziz
What would you guess are the biggest threats to the health and longevity of Americans? Cancer? Infectious diseases? Heart disease?As top causes of death in the United States, these are certainly strong contenders.
What about lack of health insurance? It’s one of the biggest threats to our health as individuals, and to the health of our nation’s economy.
Some 48.6 million Americans lack health insurance, and millions more are under-insured, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 19 percent of Georgians are uninsured, far exceeding the national average and placing us among the top-10 states for uninsured residents.
Georgia is among the top five states with the highest number of premature deaths due to lack of insurance.
But before you say, “It’s not my problem,” let’s take a closer look. Uninsured citizens depress our collective ability to grow the state’s economy – driving up the cost of health care, reducing the number of healthy workers, limiting tax revenues and diluting the competitiveness of businesses and health care providers.
No one is insulated from the cost of the uninsured. In 2010, Georgia hospitals employed 157,000 people, contributing $38 billion to the economy. Any person in genuine need, regardless of insurance status, will receive care at our community’s hospitals – for legal, but most important, for moral and ethical issues. This commitment to care comes with a high cost. In 2010, Georgia hospitals provided over $1.5 billion in uncompensated costs to the uninsured. Georgia’s only public academic health center, Georgia Health Sciences Medical Center, provided $37 million of that cost, more than $100,000 every day in unreimbursed care.
You may be surprised to learn that a large proportion of the state’s uninsured are active participants in Georgia’s workforce. Why would people with jobs be uninsured? For starters, 98 percent of Georgia firms employ fewer than 500 people, and less than half offer health insurance. Even when insurance is offered, it is often cost-prohibitive; 38 percent of eligible workers in the smallest businesses fail to enroll or opt out of employer-sponsored health insurance.
Meanwhile, health care costs continue to rise due to factors including an aging population, the profusion of technology and a system that emphasizes treatment rather than prevention, particularly for the uninsured.
An estimated 26,000 to 45,000 citizens die prematurely each year due to lack of insurance, able to access care only when their problems become extreme. And catastrophic care costs a lot more money than preventive care.
The high rate of uninsured and the low rate of employer-sponsored health insurance in Georgia is unlikely to improve in the short term without active intervention, such as an accessible and transparent small/individual insurance marketplace, better education of employer and employees, and economic incentives and disincentives for small businesses or ultra-small businesses offering insurance.
It is time to decisively face the problem of the uninsured in Georgia – because it is everyone’s problem.
Dr. Ricardo Azziz is CEO of Georgia Health Sciences System and president of Georgia Health Sciences University.