The Herald News
January 23, 2005
By Paul Aronsohn

There is nothing more important than good health. Yet, for too many Americans, there is nothing more elusive than good health care. For that reason, the issue was front and center in last year’s presidential debate. To some, this may have seemed surprising given the national focus on war and terrorism. To the rest of us, however, this made perfect sense.

Health – or the lack thereof – poses a very real, immediate threat to a large number of Americans. In fact, every year the battle against disease leaves millions dead and millions more suffering. And while lives are being lost at an alarming rate, we, as a country, have put up a woefully inadequate defense. In short, we are losing the fight against bad health.

Granted, there is much that is good, if not great, about our health care system. We have the best doctors. We have the best medicines. And we even have the best hospitals. Yet, for more than 40 million uninsured Americans – about 15 percent of our population – and millions more who are underinsured, none of that makes a difference. They can’t afford our great health care and, therefore, they can’t access it. Simply put, although health problems are seemingly nondiscriminating, our health care system is not.

This is unacceptable and unbecoming a great country. Rich or poor, we all deserve access to quality health care. On this, there should be absolutely no debate. The only question should be how best to accomplish this lofty, albeit necessary goal.

The current system wrongly treats poor people as second-class citizens, while simultaneously wasting an abundance of much needed resources. It’s both unconscionable and unmanageable. It’s a system in desperate need of change. Yet aside from some tinkering around the edges, little has been done in recent years.

Too many people still receive their primary care in emergency rooms. Too many seniors still go without much needed medicines. And too many families still struggle day after painful day to pay exorbitant medical costs for sub-quality medical care.

President Bush should therefore make health care a genuine priority. He should build on his recently enacted Medicare legislation and work towards real, fundamental reform. He should move beyond the political sound bites of “drug imports” and “tort reform” and seek meaningful solutions that will guarantee all Americans access to safe, affordable, quality care. In essence, although it’s too late to launch a pre-emptive strike, he should declare war on America’s health care crisis. To this end, the president should immediately convene a national health-care summit – one that brings together the best, brightest and most thoughtful voices on the subject – and he should invite all stakeholders — governors, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, nurses, hospitals, patient advocates, etc. – to take a seat at the table.

He should also use his bully pulpit to lead a national conversation about our priorities – a conversation that goes beyond the role of government and speaks to American values of community, responsibility and opportunity. In so doing, he should challenge the collective conscience of a country that is at once great and proud, but that too often leaves some of its own behind. He should also challenge the collective wisdom of a nation that has for too long paid a price – ethically as well as economically — for doing so.

Any approach taken by the president should be far-reaching and guided by a healthy mix of courage, compassion and pragmatism. He should be bold, but smart. He should be willing to take dramatic action while being guided by a realistic sense of the possible. And he should seek to strike a delicate, but necessary balance – one that maintains our ability to provide the very best in patient care, while making sure that all would-be patients have access to it.

From my perspective from within the pharmaceutical industry, this translates into a two-solution approach. A solution for those who need access to medicines that exist today and a solution for those who need access to medicines that hopefully will exist tomorrow – those whose only hope may currently lie in a research laboratory. In other words, we need a system that serves all patients – rich as well as poor, today’s as well as tomorrow’s.

Meaningful reform will be difficult – no question about it. Our system of health care is in terrible disrepair, and fixing it will not be easy.

Yet, it is incumbent upon the president to recognize that this is a goal worth pursuing – a goal worthy of his time, energy, and commitment.

He must recognize that there is nothing more basic to our overall well being – as a country and as individuals – than good health. The president must, in short, recognize that the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” means very little without the corresponding right to good health care.