Co-Author of Recent Harvard Study on Annual Deaths of America's Uninsured
The findings of a major Harvard medical study were announced last Thursday afternoon. Dr. Steffie Woolhandler was the study co-author. She is a professor of medicine at Harvard as well as a primary care physician in Cambridge. Dr. Woolhandler agreed to answer questions between appointments with her patients. Welcome to OpEdNews. The study that you co-authored is particularly timely because of the current health care debate raging in Congress. Can you tell our readers a bit about it?
We found that nearly 45,000 American die annually due to a lack of health insurance. We used data that had been collected by the federal government. Thousands of Americans were interviewed, and then received examinations from physicians as well as lab tests. So we had detailed data, not only on socio-economic factors like income and education, but also on the baseline health of the study subjects. Then the subjects were followed for up to 13years to see who lived and who died.
After controlling for multiple socio-economic and health factors, lack of health insurance was associated with an increased death rate of about 40%. This is somewhat larger than the 25% excess risk of death found in a study using virtually identical methods on older data. The older study was the basis of a well-publicized Institute of Medicine estimate that lack of health insurance was associated with 18,000 deaths annually.
Unfortunately, even the House health care bill would leave 17 million uninsured (according to the CBO [Congressional Budget Office]) while the Baucus bill would leave at least 25 million uninsured. This means that tens of thousands of Americans will continue to die, even if these bills work as planned.
The only way to affordably cover all Americans in through a Medicare-for-all, single payer approach. A single payer would generate $300-$400 billion in administrative saving annually, enough to cover all of the uninsured, and to plug the gaps in coverage for Americans with only partial coverage. Obviously, Medicare-for-all is anathema to the insurance industry. What politicians are doing is saving insurance industry profits but sacrificing American lives.
Which came first, your research on this topic or your commitment to single-payer, universal coverage? Those who are skeptical of government involvement in health care will want to know.
I've been committed to universal access to health care for my entire medical career.
The research was done in my capacity as a Harvard faculty member. It was not paid for by any political organization, although PNHP helped publicize the study, along with the public relations offices of Harvard Medical School and of Cambridge Hospital (where I work as a primary care doctor).
Was everyone else on the team also committed to universal access?
All of the authors are doctors at a public, safety-net hospital. I think it is fair to say that all of us are committed to universal, quality care regardless of the patients' ability to pay.
And how does one take your research findings and use them politically and pragmatically to achieve single-payer?