U.S. President Barack Obama has finally brought America closer to European universal healthcare systems. It took him almost a year to persuade Congress to approve his healthcare reform. The House approved it by a majority of only seven votes (219 to 212) on March 21. The amended bill will be submitted to the Senate but this will be a sheer formality, since the Senate is dominated by Democrats and the endorsement procedure has already been agreed upon.
The 44th U.S. president could sign the bill this week. He will then go down in history not only as the first black president, but also as the first "red" president: Obama's Republican opponents maintain that the bill is too socialist.
The European genes implanted into the American medical insurance system will not make it similar to that of Britain, Sweden or even neighboring Canada. Even Obama could not dare to be so radically socialist. However, his reform is truly historic, albeit only for America.
Europeans may mock it as pathetic since they adopted medical insurance systems decades ago. Russia also has such a system. Indicatively, one of the most vicious opponents of Obama's reform, Republican Devin Nunes, accused the bill of continuing the failed Soviet experiment. He was overly emotional but there is a grain of truth in what he said.
The gist of the reform is to introduce universal medical insurance on a par with federal (government) insurance programs, providing an alternative to private ones. The new law (it will come into force in 2014) will extend medical insurance coverage from the current 85% to 95%. In other words, another 32 million people who could not afford medical insurance will be covered by it. All in all, the U.S. state budget will spend $940 billion on it over the next ten years.
A spend of about $90 billion a year on medical insurance is not a huge sum for the world's richest country. Few people know but the biggest number of bankruptcies in the United States (as estimated by the Government Accountability Office) occurs due to the failure to pay medical bills (serious operations, treatment, etc). In order to pay these bills, patients or their relatives have to sell their houses and cars and are left destitute.
Moreover, the new law will prohibit insurance companies from refusing to offer insurance because of previous medical history, boosting insurance premiums (today they can increase by 40% per year) and denying coverage to the sick. Children will have the right to use their parents' insurance until they reach 26 years of age. Insurance costs will be controlled. Apparently, the socialist experience has proved too tempting to be resisted.
Advocates of the reform maintain that this expensive reform will eventually save America money. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office (considered an independent department in the United States) has calculated that America could save $160 billion in the first year and up to $1.2 trillion in the second. In the meantime, the U.S. budget deficit will reach $1.4 trillion in fiscal year 2010. It is difficult to explain where such stunning figures come from. Maybe they are based on very tentative estimates rather than real expectations. But even if these figures are reduced 10-fold, the United States will still save quite a bit. The bill consists of 2,700 pages with endless figures, tables, tariff descriptions, percentages, insurance gibberish, medical and legal phrasing. Reading even a tenth of it could seriously damage one's health.
As with any genetic modification, unforeseen consequences can be much deeper than expected. The first problems may crop up next November, during mid-term elections to Congress. Announcing the bill's adoption, Obama said that this was the right decision. It was for him but he may only be re-elected in 2012. Maybe, by that time voters will have learnt in detail about the advantages of the new system. It certainly has many advantages but there is too little time left for that before November when the entire House and one third of the Senate will be reelected.
During the presidency of Bill Clinton who also tried to reform healthcare in 1994, the Democrats lost control over Congress at mid-term elections. This wouldn't be a disaster (Clinton was reelected for a second term after that) but nothing good will happen as a result. If Obama damages Congress' health through his healthcare reform and the Republicans subsequently dominate it, his legislative program will be hamstrung.
To understand what Obama has planned, we should recall that medicine is an industry in the United States with a turnover of the British or French economy. America has been toying with the idea of such reforms for almost 100 years. It was Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican) who considered comprehensive medical insurance back in 1912. It transpires that America had to elect its first black president in order to see their first unprecedented overhaul of the medical insurance system.
No one should be under any illusions. The American healthcare system is one of the best in the world. Its problem lies elsewhere. Those who built it over many decades managed to make it durable but very uneven. It offers luxuries for some, and leaves others experiencing incredible discrimination and indifference. The United States spends trillions on healthcare. In 2009 it spent $2.5 trillion on it, or about $8,000 per capita. However, to this day 45 million people had no access to medical care at all. This is a disgrace for the world's richest country in the 21st century.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin)