I don't believe in gambling, but some days I think our leaders in Washington, D.C., do. Despite decades of warnings about the toll rising healthcare costs and the growing number of uninsured are taking on our collective health and nation's economy, our leaders continue to leave the issue of the uninsured to chance. By failing to take action, they are gambling with some of the nation's most important assets, the health and livelihood of its hard-working people. And unless they act soon, it's a bet they are likely to lose.
By failing to make healthcare coverage for the nearly 46 million uninsured Americans a top priority, our elected representatives are allowing the problem to grow. Nearly a million more people become uninsured each year. About one in seven Americans is now uninsured, including more than eight million children, and the problem is getting worse. Having a job, even a full-time job, doesn't necessarily guarantee coverage. In fact, eight out of ten uninsured Americans are in working families. As costs rise, fewer individuals and families have health coverage because fewer businesses can afford to offer insurance to their employees.
As a result, people without health coverage are forced to roll the healthcare dice each day, hoping they won't get sick or injured. The odds are stacked against them. Ultimately, they live sicker and die younger. Numbers from the Institute of Medicine suggest that an average of fifty people die each day in this country because they are uninsured and could not get the medical care they needed, when they needed it most. Those who survive often face financial ruin, as just one serious illness or injury can wipe out an uninsured family's savings, forcing them into bankruptcy.
The philanthropic community has taken the lead in building awareness among opinion leaders and the public about this issue. We have come at it from many angles. We've supported research and spearheaded public awareness campaigns that highlight the physical and financial impact the uninsured have on the health of individuals, businesses, and our economy.
In addition to raising awareness, many foundations are working together to press states and local organizations to fund and develop nonpartisan initiatives geared at providing needed health care, or enrolling those who are eligible in existing coverage programs. Progress is being made in some states, but we cannot solve this problem without federal action.
All of our work is increasing support to solve this most vexing of healthcare challenges. Public opinion research shows that campaigns such as Cover the Uninsured Week (May 1-7) — an effort I have had the honor of leading with Presidents Ford and Carter these past four years — elevate the issue of the uninsured among opinion leaders in Washington, D.C., and across the nation.
But political action has been slow to follow. As leaders in social change and advocates for the continued health and prosperity of all Americans, we must come together to tell our nation's leaders that it is no longer acceptable to gamble with the health of this nation.
Finding a national solution to the problem of the uninsured must be a national priority. I urge all philanthropists to make our voices heard. We welcome your involvement in Cover the Uninsured Week. Our Web site, http://www.CoverTheUninsured.org, provides opportunities to register your concern, find help for uninsured Americans, and spread the word to friends and family.
It is critically important that philanthropic organizations continue to shine a light on the issue of the uninsured, but this issue is bigger than one sector. We need to engage the power and reach of all our collective networks. With no comprehensive national solution on the immediate horizon, we know that our lawmakers won't act until we do. All Americans — regardless of their insurance status or political affiliation — need to get involved and make their opinion count. Together we can get America covered.
The alternative is a gamble we can't afford to lose.
Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which, as the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change.