Unpaid medical bills are piling up on kitchen tables all over America. In addition to the rising costs of food, gas and housing, more and more working families are becoming overwhelmed by skyrocketing health care costs.
Since 2001, average premiums for family health insurance coverage have risen 78 percent and now stand at more than $12,000 annually, not including out-of-pocket costs which average an additional $3,000. The soaring cost of health coverage makes seeing a doctor and getting necessary care unaffordable and even impossible for millions of children and working families. One recent study found that half of all American families filing for bankruptcy cited medical causes.
More than 47 million in our nation are uninsured, including 9.4 million children. The majority of these children live in two-parent families, and almost 90 percent have a working parent, but they still cannot afford to cover their children.
This is not right. The most recent Census data reveal that the number of uninsured children increased by more than one million in just two years alone, and that number could grow as the economy continues to weaken.
There are a number of myths circulating now suggesting that simple, private sector fixes can solve our health care problem. In fact, the private sector has not provided adequate solutions.
Businesses are struggling financially to provide coverage for their workers. Since 2000, the percentage of employers providing health coverage has dropped from 69 to 60 percent. And as workers with private or employer-sponsored health coverage saw cost increases that far outpaced the rate of inflation and the growth in their wages, many also saw their benefits shrink. In most states, health insurers in the individual market can charge high premiums, exclude individuals with pre-existing conditions, offer skimpy benefits, or deny coverage altogether to children likely to incur high health care costs.
Providing health care tax credits so families can buy private health insurance, as some have suggested, is the wrong approach to covering uninsured children. The relatively small tax credit of between $2,500 and $5,000 that has been proposed will make health coverage affordable for only a few families when average annual health costs are close to $15,000. Regardless of the amount of the tax credit, some families cannot obtain health coverage at any price, particularly for sick or disabled children.
By contrast, government-supported health coverage programs such as Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) have substantially reduced the number of uninsured children in our nation. These successful programs must be expanded and simplified as part of a consolidated children's health program that guarantees every child in America the comprehensive health coverage they need to grow and thrive.
All children need access to primary health care, not just when they are sick, but throughout childhood to ensure their healthy growth and development. But frequently, uninsured parents must make the anguished decision to put off a doctor visit for a sick child hoping the child will get better without treatment. In too many cases, waiting causes an illness to worsen to the point where they must take their child to the emergency room for much more invasive and expensive treatment, while the chances of rapid recovery are reduced.
Providing health coverage to our children is one of the most cost-effective investments our nation can make. It costs about a third as much to extend health coverage to a child for a year as it does for an adult. For example, every $1 spent on immunizations for children saves $16 over the course of their lifetimes in medical costs.
A child is born uninsured in the United States every 41 seconds—that's more than 2,100 children every day. When children have health coverage, the number of child hospitalizations for preventable illnesses drops, school attendance goes up and academic performance improves. Healthy children turn into healthy, educated adults who will make up America's work force tomorrow.
We must step forward now to ensure that there is a level playing field for all children in health care.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund.
For more information about the Children's Defense Fund's Healthy Child Campaign, go to childrensdefense.org/healthychild.