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Patients Running Out of Time

From the Publisher of Chicago Life

By PAM BERNS

Author of Wealth and Democracy, Kevin Phillips writes that extreme inequalities of wealth endanger our democracy. Nowhere is the disparity between the rich and poor clearer than in our health care system. Many of us with job-provided health insurance may take our health care for granted. Unfortunately, a growing percentage of our citizens' lives are threatened by a lack or loss of insurance coverage.

According to the Health Care Justice Act of Illinois, more than 31 percent of people in Illinois were uninsured for some length of time between 2002 and 2003. The health disparity between blacks and whites in Chicago is widening, according to the American Journal of Public Health. Many families live one health problem away from financial disaster. Having a serious illness is stressful enough without facing financial ruin as well.

Most patients without insurance must pay full price for hospital services. Insurers, however, are able to negotiate rates approximately 25 percent to 42 percent the cost the individual is billed. It's no wonder patients get wiped out with one medical problem when they don't have insurance.

My health care premiums were over $11,000 this year. How high will premiums continue to rise in proportion to inflation? How can we expect the working poor to ever afford health insurance on their own? Some workers earn minimum wage and support children on about $9,393 a year.

Chicago is home to some of the best hospitals in the nation. But more and more families delay seeking medical care because they cannot afford health insurance. The Europeans are able to offer their citizens universal health care. Our government already pays for 60 percent of our health care--nevertheless we continue to finance a system that leaves 45 million Americans without insurance.

At Stroger Hospital, Cook County's beautiful new facility that serves the uninsured, our writer found that sometimes there are 40 patients backed up waiting for a bed. Patients on medications must wait for 6 to 24 hours for their prescriptions to be filled. For those who are ill, a wait that long can be a major ordeal. Additionally, the hospital is being threatened with major federal funding and staffing cuts.

According to Physicians for a National Health Program, 50 percent of bankruptcies are caused by illness or medical bills. Since 1981, medical bankruptcies have risen by 2,200 percent. And with the recently passed legislation on bankruptcy, many people facing bankruptcy because of a medical catastrophe will never be able to recover. How do you get out of debt when you are too sick to work?

It is time we face reality. Until we adopt a universal health care system our country will continue to offer only the healthy and affluent the best health care money can buy.

Every two days 3,000 patients die of cancer--more than the number of Americans who died on 9/11, according to health advocate Greg Brozeit. To the 1.3 million diagnosed with cancer and the 570,000 cancer patients who die each year and their families, time is running out.

Despite decades of cancer research, millions of cancer patients are still using therapies of yesterday. According to The New York Times, a single day's moderate dose of thalidomide, a 50-year-old drug effective for treating a blood cancer, sells for $70.47 in the United States. But in Brazil the capsule sells for 7 cents. This is unconscionable.

Fortunately, we have members of Congress who keep fighting to make health care a top priority. New treatments--molecularly targeted therapies such as Gleevec--offer hope to millions of cancer patients. Gleevec works by blocking an out-of-control protein caused by a chromosomal defect that affects patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia.

"Deciphering the biochemical changes that turn normal cells into cancer cells will carry new groundwork for innovative therapies," says Sen. Edward Kennedy. "The War on Cancer launched in the 1970's focused attention on cancer and led to a generation of extraordinary progress in prevention, early detection and treatment, and millions of Americans are cancer survivors today because of it. We can't afford to be complacent. Advances in genomic science, applied to cancer, have the potential for creating a new generation of progress in the years ahead, but it won't happen unless we make the needed investment now."

While most of us appreciate the spirit of entrepreneurship that our market-based economy nourishes, our country's health care delivery system is heading south.

The National Cancer Institute says that many pharmaceutical industries are focusing on markets for drugs that can generate billions of dollars or more. Because many types of cancer have large numbers of molecular targets, "cancer does not represent a major market for most large pharmaceutical companies," writes the NCI. "Conversely, the biotechnology industry has embraced the cancer market and currently there are over 1,500 biotechnology companies, many of which are focused on the development of innovative interventions for cancer. Unfortunately, many of these companies do not succeed due to a lack of funding from the capital markets."

According to The New York Times, researchers at the Broad Institute, a genetic center affiliated with Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, want to catalog the genetic abnormalities that characterize cancer to determine the DNA sequences in thousands of tumor samples. They are on the brink of discovering causes and cures for cancers caused by mutations in genes that prompt a cascade of uncontrollable events.

Researchers say that they can solve many of the mysteries of cancer if we can invest $1.35 billion in the Human Cancer Genome Project--a feat said to be much more complex than the Human Genome Project. To put this sum in perspective, each month our country spends $4.5 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of one B-2 stealth bomber is $2.2 billion.

We must not delay full funding for cancer genome research. If you feel this issue is as important as I do, let Sen. Barack Obama (202-224-2854) and Sen. Dick Durbin (202-224-2152) know. We must win this battle. And we can.--Pam Berns

Published: June 01, 2005
Issue: Summer 2005