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Updated 10:00 AM September 13, 2004



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Panel: Uninsurance affects both the haves and have-nots

More than 40 million people in the United States are living without health insurance, and the problem affects those who have it as well as those who do not, said participants at a workshop hosted by U-M Sept. 8-10.

The problem must be viewed as societal, not medical, the experts said. They also said the quality and service of hospitals depends on how the issue of uninsurance is addressed.

"If you have health insurance, you are at risk because of those who don't," President Mary Sue Coleman told a group of media convened for "Uninsurance: Covering the Uninsured—A Health Care Workshop for Journalists." "What percentage of the population has to face this before it implodes?"

Coleman and Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Dr. Robert Kelch kicked off the workshop Sept. 9 with a breakfast discussion with media fellows from numerous outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, Business Week, and U.S. News & World Report.

The event was sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Communications. The U-M Health System sponsored a Sept. 8 reception.

Coleman is co-chair of the Institute of Medicine's (IOM) Committee on the Consequences of Uninsurance. The committee issued a report in January that stated one in five American families with children has at least one uninsured member. In addition, the cost of poor health due to uninsurance costs $65 billion to $130 billion annually.

The committee called on the federal government to "take action to achieve universal health insurance and to establish an explicit schedule to reach this goal by 2010."

"It is an issue I am very concerned and passionate about," Coleman said. "I hope health care, like jobs, will become a serious issue in this year's election." Coleman said later this month she will appoint a University task force on health care, adding that there is no better place than U-M to develop and test new models for health care.

"I wear many hats related to health care in my role here at the University, and I see how fragile the network can become," Coleman said. "We want to create a prototype here, and I hope this will be the beginning of new models for health care."

Coleman said when people are healthy, they do not think about uninsurance. Answering a comment that many people without insurance can afford it but choose not to carry it, Coleman pointed to the IOM report that showed almost two-thirds of uninsured people have incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

"It is a national embarrassment to have one out of seven people uninsured in this country," Kelch said. "How can we look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning and say that we are a kinder, gentler nation?"

The three-day workshop included panels on current research of the Economic Research Initiative on the Uninsured; ways that uninsurance has impacted various groups, including minorities and the poor; the cost of prescription drugs; and solutions for the uninsurance problem.

"There are major problems, and they are coming our way," Kelch said. "People in dire need of medical care may be locked out of the only places that can provide it."

All panelists agreed it is important for the media to help get the word out about uninsurance. However, it will be necessary for all citizens to get involved.

"As long as Americans go with this fantasy that 'as long as I have coverage, then I am OK,' they are not going to deal with it," said Dr. Arthur Kellerman, professor and chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine. He co-chairs the IOM committee with Coleman.

"It is absolutely self-interest. Your health care, whether you are insured or not, is absolutely threatened by this problem."

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