Most Americans have felt the sting of rising health care costs at one point or another. Those most affected, however, by skyrocketing medical fees, pricey prescription drugs and expensive insurance premiums are society's most vulnerable: children and seniors.
Federal and state governments have collectively and individually introduced legislation intended to make health care more accessible, but confusion in the federal legislation and lack of funding for state proposals will prevent these initiatives from making a big enough impact. A national health plan is needed to ensure that America's most fragile citizens are protected.
Nov. 15 marked the beginning of the new Medicare prescription drug plan. Instead of being excited about the change and the seemingly vast amount of options to them, eligible senior citizens are confused. The plan is expected to cost over $700 billion over the next 10 years and is the largest expansion of Medicare in the past 40 years.
Medicare offsets much of the cost of the new drug plans, which are administered by insurance companies. Before deciding on one of the several dozen plans available, seniors must first figure out which plans work with other state and federal assistance programs. Then, they have to decide which plans their local pharmacist is registered with.
When all these factors are considered, many are learning they don't have much choice at all. Seniors have until May to enroll in a plan; if they miss the deadline, they'll have to pay a late-enrollment penalty, adding deadline pressure to an already confusing and stressful selection process.
The change in Medicare's prescription drug plan isn't the only health care-related reform happening in the country. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill., has introduced his All Kids plan, which makes affordable insurance available to the children of working parents. The legislation would make insurance available to about 125,000 children across the state.
In Massachusetts, the Legislature is negotiating competing plans to cover all of the state's half-million uninsured residents. Oklahoma recently started to enroll small companies and their employees in a program that would offset insurance premiums for company-paid health insurance; they expect the plan would cover 50,000 to 70,000 people.
While the state plans are encouraging, it's simply not enough. Reform has to begin at the national level.
People of color have a lot at stake here. The vast majority of Black children and seniors are un- or under-insured. By advocating for a comprehensive, nationally funded health plan, we can ensure that our community's most valuable resources — our youth and our elders — are cared for.
The poor state of America's health care system directly affects the African American community; for us, making sure the system is reformed is, literally, a matter of life and death.
If you're a senior and you need help figuring out the new Medicare drug program, call 1-800-633-4227 or visit medicare.gov.
Judge Greg Mathis is chair of the Rainbow PUSH-Excel Board and a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.