OPINION: A Practical Health Care Solution

If history is any guide, we are nearing an important opportunity for health care reform.

As a member of Congress who serves on a key health committee, I have been involved in many debates about how to restructure and improve our health care system. These discussions tend to occur every 10 to 15 years when costs rise and coverage declines to levels that attract national attention.

Unfortunately, the minor tweaks and threats of reform we have made in the past have not resulted in lasting change. As a result, we are spending more -- and getting less -- than any other industrialized nation.

Republican proposals for health care reform call for moving people into health savings accounts and high-deductible health plans. But employers don't have to contribute to these accounts, and most don't.

These plans also provide inadequate benefits -- most don't cover maternity care, for example -- and have such high out-of-pocket limits that people cannot afford needed treatments.

These aren't practical solutions designed to improve people's health but recipes for dismantling employer-sponsored care and for putting people "on their own." That's the wrong direction for America.

The right direction is to develop a universal health care system that would cover everyone while reducing national health expenditures. That's why I've introduced AmeriCare, a practical proposal to ensure that everyone has affordable health coverage.

AmeriCare builds on what works -- both employer coverage and Medicare -- to provide universal coverage with minimal disruption to the current system.

For the past four decades, the stability and affordability of Medicare has helped millions of seniors and people with disabilities live longer, healthier lives. Because of Medicare, families have been able to save for their children's educations rather than having to pay for their parents' health care.

Medicare is also affordable. Whereas private insurers devote 30 percent of funds for marketing, administration and profit, Medicare operates on a 2 percent to 3 percent margin. Health care providers have also benefited from Medicare.

Without government as a consistent payer, providers would not be able to offer the quality care they deliver today.

AmeriCare also recognizes the important role that job-based benefits play in our current health system. Under my proposal, people would either receive coverage through their employer or through AmeriCare, a new program modeled on Medicare.

AmeriCare would provide preventive, physician, hospital and mental health services, as well as maternity coverage and an affordable prescription drug benefit. It would also limit out-of-pocket costs.

Eighty percent of people who file for bankruptcy because of medical bills have health insurance, but their benefits do not meet their needs. Policies that are unaffordable, that discourage people from seeking care, or that do not cover necessary benefits are empty solutions.

We need a new direction for health care in our country. No parent should ever have to deny a child a lifesaving treatment because the parent cannot afford the cost. Nor should any family ever lose a parent because their condition was treated too late. AmeriCare is an affordable, practical way to make universal coverage a reality.

Rep. Pete Stark represents California's 13th Congressional District and is the ranking Democratic member on the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee.