Guest editorials do not necessarily reflect Herald-Leader views.
The number of Americans without health insurance has grown by nearly 8 million since 2001 to 46 million today.
The moral cost of this failure can be measured in the growing numbers of adults and children who go without checkups and other basic and preventive care, leaving them vulnerable to serious illness and struggling at school or work because of minor problems that easily could be cured with a doctor visit.
Now the economic imperative is coming into sharper focus as well. A report by Families USA, an advocate for universal health care coverage, shows the financial stake all Americans have in expanding coverage as part of President Barack Obama's proposed health care reforms.
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The "hidden health tax" — the cost paid by insured Americans to subsidize care for the uninsured — grew to $1,017 for the typical family of four in 2008, up from $922 in 2005. As the ranks of the uninsured explode during this recession, those numbers will skyrocket.
The conclusion is obvious. Rather than facing higher costs because of health care reform, taxpayers could see their overall financial outlook improve if we had a more efficient system of providing basic care to all Americans.
Here's how the hidden tax works: By law, hospitals must help anyone who walks into an emergency room. The cost of providing that care to the uninsured was an estimated $42.7 billion in 2008. Taxpayers pick up part of the cost at public hospitals, but insured Americans bear a significant burden in higher insurance premiums and higher costs for medical services, all to help make up for the bills the uninsured can't pay.
Emergency room care remains one of the most expensive and least efficient ways to treat routine illnesses. It's the medical equivalent of seeing the red light on your car dashboard and not doing anything about it until you're stalled, with your engine burned out.
People who have insurance can heed that red light and seek help earlier, at a doctor's office or clinic, at far lower cost, which most often prevents more serious conditions. The United States spends far more per capita on health care than its European counterparts, even though nearly all European nations have universal coverage. Making wiser use of U.S. health care dollars will benefit not only Americans' health but their wallets as well.
SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS