If there's anything scarier to Americans amid this horrid economy than the prospect of losing a job, it's the other shoe that often drops at the same time -- losing health insurance. A family might be able to muddle along on savings and unemployment for awhile, or perhaps there's another breadwinner in the house.
But without health insurance, that family may well be only one serious accident or illness away from financial disaster. (Sure, they could buy insurance on the open market -- with their unspent lottery winnings.)
What if a family member needed admission to a hospital for a battery of tests? Or surgery, heaven forbid? It might be something as common as appendicitis, but the cost of treatment will range into the many thousands of dollars. For most people, to pay bills of that size out of pocket would mean ravaging their savings accounts, selling valuable assets, going deeply into hock.
Without insurance to cushion the expense, many people also are hard-pressed to pay for routine care -- the kind of care that can cure a simple illness or help control a chronic condition like high blood pressure. Left unattended, that condition can knock a person flat. Then the expenses really mount.
None of these scenarios are a mystery to Americans; they figure in our nightmares. President Obama realizes how important it is to millions of families that health insurance protection not be something that can vanish at the whim of an employer desperately trying to outlast the recession, something that for the jobless is often hopelessly expensive. At the same time, he and other reformers understand how bloated costs throughout the health system and insurance industry have become a curse on both individual well-being and the nation's economic strength.
Obama is pushing for reform in America's financing of health care because it is good, compassionate public policy. If he's able to lead the way to a better system, it also could cement his popularity.
The forces assembling in opposition are formidable. They include principal players in a giant, for-profit health care establishment -- especially the insurance companies. Then there are the doctors, particularly specialists, who have come to regard their healing, helping profession as a business with revenue maximization a top priority. There are the hospitals hawking their services and their amenities in a bottom line-driven scramble for market share.
Obama wants Congress to enact health-care reform legislation during this, his first year in office. He knows his window of leverage may be narrow. He now is taking his case to the grass roots, enlisting governors and other outside-the-Beltway voices to help make the case. Unexpected support has arisen from the likes of Wal-Mart, which now says it favors a requirement that employers offer health coverage. In the end the insurance companies will be among those fighting the president tooth and nail, no matter their lip service paid to compromise. They surely do not want the government to offer its own insurance option. Why, they might -- would -- lose business.
Nor will congressional Republicans be eager to go along, handing Obama a victory that would make him a hero. Better, though, that they find a way to get aboard the reform train and share the glory. Better for Americans, their health and their economic future.