September 19, 2009

The Harvard Medical School released a study yesterday that I dare you to read without your heart breaking.

Nearly 45,000 people die in the United States each year -- one every 12 minutes -- in large part because they lack health insurance and can not get good care, Harvard Medical School researchers found in an analysis released on Thursday.

"We're losing more Americans every day because of inaction ... than drunk driving and homicide combined," Dr. David Himmelstein, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, said in an interview with Reuters.

Overall, researchers said American adults age 64 and younger who lack health insurance have a 40 percent higher risk of death than those who have coverage.

This is well up from a 2002 estimate showing 18,000 preventable deaths per year from a lack of health insurance. And the increase is directly related to the increase of the uninsured, as well as the scaling back of public hospitals or free clinics or access to care, particularly for those in poor areas. Diabetes and heart disease are two of the most common preventable diseases among this class of the uninsured. As one of the professors in the study puts it, "it's completely a no-brainer that people who can't get health care are going to die more from the kinds of things that health care is supposed to prevent,"

If anything, we're going to see this get worse, if nothing changes. Jobless rates are expected to remain high for years, according to the OECD. With the rapid job loss in this Great Recession, nobody expects as rapid a return. And that means more people dropping off the health insurance rolls. In addition, employers will raise costs and lower coverage, if they even keep it. And for every new member of the ranks of the uninsured, the chances increase exponentially for a preventable death.

The need for fundamental health care reform isn't just a statistical issue, or about budgets, or bending cost curves. It's a matter of life and death.

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