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Sick and Tired

By PAM BERNS
    We stand at the precipice of solving the mysteries of disease and reforming health care, but if you look at the funding for medical research, you would never guess it. I recently saw a chart illustrating the research and development budget for cancer at the National Institutes of Health  sink well below inflation. For those living with cancer, time is crucial. As scientists are unlocking the genetic keys for cancers, funding for research has never been more critical for developing smart drugs. The current administration has had their priorities upside down. It’s time for us to withdraw from Iraq and begin to address the needs of Americans—not the war profiteers.
David G. Nathan’s book, The Cancer Treatment Revolution: How Smart Drugs and Other New Therapies Are Renewing Our Hope and Changing the Face of Medicine, explains the problems of curing stubborn cancers that mutate and become resistant to standard cancer therapies.
    The book describes how smart drugs affected the treatment of three cancer patients. The narrative is spellbinding, following the work and lives of researchers dedicated to finding cures for various cancers.
   Nathan writes that there are encouraging things on the horizon in developing smart drugs to cure cancer or keep it at the level of a chronic but manageable disease. With the use of new, very sensitive, PET scanners and MRI machines, Nathan writes, researchers will be able to test an “astonishing” small number of cancer cells on these imaging systems and be able to determine whether the cells are dead or alive. Nathan says that with new testing compounds and these precise instruments, scientists will be able to determine quickly whether a new drug kills the cancer. He says that these new methods will save  precious time for patients of lengthy, expensive clinical trials on these new smart drugs.
    In reference to the cervical cancer vaccine, Nathan writes, “Incredibly, the FDA, now in the toils of the George W. Bush administration can only be described as absurd and dangerous. That some of our best scientific agencies survive is a tribute to a few remarkable government officers. Fortunately, an external FDA advisory group favorably reviewed the vaccine data during the spring of 2006. Hence the reluctant and politically controlled leadership of the FDA was forced to approve the vaccine.”
    The Food and Drug Administration has also been underfunded and the American public has paid the price. Rarely a week goes by without an example of the FDA’s poor  performance—poisoned Heparin, the bogus tomato scare, no records to trace when people suffer from listeria, salmonella and ecoli outbreaks.
The two presumptive presidential candidates present very different ideas of how to reform the health system. John McCain’s plan for health care is to eliminate the employer-based insurance that most Americans rely on today. He intends to get rid of the tax deductibility of employer-provided insurance, which would require employers who do offer their workers health insurance to take the money out of the workers’ paychecks for their tax liability on their health insurance. This will obviously offer no incentive for employers to keep offering insurance. So when the workers pay for their own insurance, they will be the lucky recipients of a $2,500 tax credit (or $5,000 for a family). I don’t know about you, but several of my friends’ health insurance premiums  are over $12,000 a year for those over 50 who might have less-than-perfect health. The $2,500 tax credit per year is paltry.
   According to The New York Times, McCain wants to start a modest pool of $7 billion to $10 billion to insure those with pre-existing conditions. However, this amount is far short of being adequate.
    McCain’s proposed high risk pool may be impossible to implement. According to Times, McCain advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin claims that “5 million to 7 million uninsured would be singled out for coverage.” Keep in mind that 47 million Americans are uninsured today. Millions more are under-insured. The McCain plan does not deal with the inevitable waiting times for those with pre-existing conditions. The plan will probably cap the insurance rates at twice the standard rates. Unfortunately, this is what makes the current system unworkable today. The sickest and poorest are punished.
   McCain’s plan would undermine current employer-provided plans and force everyone into purchasing insurance as individuals and leaving millions more without health insurance because insurance companies do not want to insure sick people. How many more lives will be at risk with McCain’s plan?
   The Times quotes Georgetown University professor Karen Pollitz, who has studied high- risk pools, “They are run in ways that protect the profitability of commercial insurers. They leave the illusion that there’s a safety net without there really being much of one.” And Pollitz went on, “I do not for a minute think it will cost 7 to 10 billion dollars a year. It may cost 7 to 10 billion dollars a week.”
Barack Obama plans on building on the current health care system, creating a publicly run Medicare-type plan whereby employers or individuals could buy insurance. People who are currently under-insured or unhappy with their current insurance plan could opt into this system. But those who are happy with their current insurance can keep it. Obama’s plan would prohibit insurers from charging people with health conditions more, thus workers would not have to worry about getting insurance if they develop a serious illness or lose their jobs. With Obama’s plan, Americans would never have to worry about being one illness away from financial devastation, like many are today.
 In August, 2004, Chicago Life was the first glossy magazine to feature Barack Obama on the cover with an in-depth interview. He holds the future of many in his hands.

Published: August 09, 2008
Issue: Fall 2008 Politics Issue