Repealing Health Care Reform Will Kill 32,000 People a Year

Jan 5, 2011Richard Kirsch

Dems must tell the truth about a repeal's devastation on Americans' lives.

Why are we beating around the bush? Yes, there are a lot of good benefits in the health care law that would be lost if it were repealed. But there's also a basic truth: health insurance saves lives. A study by doctors from the Harvard Medical School calculated that about 1,000 people will die for every one million people who are uninsured. Since the health care law is expected to cover 32 million currently uninsured people, a vote for repealing reform is a vote to kill 32,000 people a year.

Who are these people? They are people like Tifanny Owens, the Seattle mother of the 11-year-old boy who stood next to President Obama when he signed the health care law. Tifanny died after she lost her job and her health insurance because her illness was making it hard for her to get to work. Without health insurance, she couldn't get the treatments she needed to stay alive.

They are people like Billy Koehler, the Pittsburgh man who died when he couldn't afford to replace his pacemaker because he lost his health coverage when he was laid off from his job.

While Tifanny and Billy are dramatic examples, most others are everyday tragedies. Many of the uninsured people who die early die because they don't get early diagnoses and treatments for chronic diseases like high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes. Instead, they end up being given expensive emergency treatment when their medical condition is advanced, too often leading to early death.

The 32,000 deaths don't include all the "insured" people who die because they have lousy insurance. Like Melanie Shouse of Missouri, who didn't get the treatment that she needed for breast cancer because her insurance had a very high deductible and didn't cover much of her care. And then there are people who are maimed because they are uninsured, like Marcus Grimes of Virginia, who lost his eyesight when he couldn't afford eye-saving surgery because his job didn't include health coverage.

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Somehow, it's not politically acceptable to talk about the truth -- repeal will kill and maim tens of thousands of people. When Florida Rep. Alan Grayson said that the Republican health care plan was for people to "die quickly," he was roundly attacked by Republicans and the right-wing media. Why did the right go after Grayson so hard? Because they realize that a real debate about how opposing health reform means sentencing working families to death would cut through all their horse manure about a "government takeover" of health care. Unfortunately, most Democrats were cowed by the vitriol of the Republicans' personal attack on Grayson -- just what the right hoped would happen. Instead, Democrats should have defended him and amplified his truth-telling.

Dr. King said, "Of all the forms of injustice, inequality in health care is the most shocking and inhumane." The key word here is "inequality." We spend twice as much per person on health care as any other developed country, while those nations provide good coverage to everyone with almost no out-of-pocket cost. We have the most unequal health system in the world, and it kills tens of thousands of people every year -- that's the shocking and inhumane part.

So as the Republicans rant about repealing reform to stop a government takeover, Democrats should do more than just remind people that repeal will take away real benefits, let the insurance industry off the hook, and increase the deficit while cutting a decade off the solvency of the Medicare trust fund. Democrats should make it crystal clear that repeal will end "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for 32,000 Americans a year.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and is writing a book on the progressive campaign to enact health reform.

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