One general truth I’ve learned about health: Ignoring a problem rarely makes it go away. Imagine you regularly get winded and feel your chest clench up for a minute after climbing stairs. Yes, if you rest a minute the pain might subside. But that doesn’t erase the root problem of disease choking off the flow of oxygen to your heart. If you don’t make an effort to uncover and address the underlying problem, you’re courting disaster.
That rule also applies to health care. A couple years ago, Americans spent a lot of time debating the crisis of rising costs and falling insurance levels that has left millions without health care. I heard (and joined) dozens of debates about the wisdom or evils of President Obama’s federal health care overhaul. After the law passed, there was a flurry of suits seeking to stop it and questions about what effect the act would have.
But in the last year or so, that discussion quieted dramatically. The main health debate in politics these days centers around religious employers’ insurance coverage of birth control pills, an important but minor part of health policy. I hear little about health reform outside of my classrooms, even though the Supreme Court will debate the federal health reform law this month. Even reform advocates have shifted focus. The nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which for years sponsored an Cover the Uninsured Week at OHSU and elsewhere, dropped the effort last year.
But the crisis of inadequate health care hasn’t gone away. If anything, the situation is worse now than ever. Even if the Supreme Court allows the federal reform law to go forward, key provisions won’t take effect until 2014. At the same time, health costs continue to rise, fewer employers offer health insurance coverage and unemployment levels remain high. All this means a huge number of U.S. residents can’t get medical care. One telling statistic: One in six Oregonians lack health insurance.
This week, a big group of Oregon students is working to draw attention back to this crisis. While the national Cover the Uninsured week is over, OHSU students decided to maintain the annual event here in Oregon, changing the name to Health Care Equality Week. Students from all OHSU’s schools — future doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists — have planned a week of lectures to educate about shortfalls in the current health system, from a drastic lack of dental care to disparities that break on lines of race, age, gender and sexual identity. The talks are happening on Marquam Hill this week. Anyone can come by and learn more. Click here for a complete schedule.
The week culminates in a big health screening fair for underinsured adults this Sunday, March 11, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in downtown Portland’s O’Bryant Square (at SW Park Ave. and Washington St.). At the fair, more than 100 student volunteers from OHSU, Oregon State, Portland State University and the Aveda Institute will offer free services including vaccinations, blood pressure and diabetes checks, haircuts, veterinary care, women’s health advice and hearing and vision checks. Local doctors and dentists are volunteering to treat some patients on site; other visitors will get referrals for specialty care later. It should be a popular event: Recent fairs had more than 200 people get care each year. And the number of people stuck without regular health care is, if anything, larger. To learn more about the fair, check out this Oregonian article, or come by Sunday and say hello.