Health care is the ‘sleeper’ issue in election

    Without a doubt, the upcoming election will rank among the most historic our country has seen in decades. While the obvious issue – "It’s the economy, stupid" – is directly in the spotlight, just off center stage sits a related issue that has millions of Americans – men and women, young and old, and Democrats and Republicans alike – crying out for equal attention.

    That issue is health care, and it is the "sleeper" issue of the 2008 election that has millions of Americans losing sleep.

    "Will my co-pays and premiums continue to rise?" "Will my employer still provide my coverage?" "What will happen if I lose my job?" These are the questions that are surging to the forefront of Americans’ minds in today’s uncertain economic environment.

    In a nationwide survey of 1,500 likely voters we conducted earlier this month, we found the economy and the turmoil on Wall Street to be the top national issue on voters’ minds as they head to the polls. However, when asked to think about the most important personal issue on their minds, health care was the single most serious personal concern – beating out the cost of gas, spiraling prices on consumer goods and even falling retirement savings.

    That’s because in households across America – from liberal stronghold Philadelphia to conservative powerhouse Provo, health care is a pocketbook issue, and its prominence rises in tandem as folks’ sense of economic uncertainty rises.

    Americans will be taking this concern to the polls. The same survey found that among women, who make the majority of health care decisions, over six in ten (62 percent) said health care is "the major issue" or "one of the major issues" influencing their voting decision this November.

    A surprise finding was health care is also a top concern for men – a finding that suggests this issue has increased in importance for this voting demographic who traditionally placed a lower priority on health care reform. More than half of men (54 percent) in the recent survey reported it as the major or one of their major voting issues.

    The presidential candidates would be wise to take note of this. Voters are hungry to hear what the candidates are proposing and, more importantly, want the next president to provide real leadership on this issue. They want to hear what the candidates will do to make health care more affordable and more accessible.

    When given a list of proposals and asked if each would improve health care in this country "a lot," "somewhat," "a little" or "not much at all," the No. 1 response that voters believe would improve the system "a lot" is catching and treating chronic disease early (69 percent). Voters are familiar with chronic disease – with 73 percent either having a chronic disease or close to someone with a chronic disease – and recognize the impact on personal lives as well as the overall health care system.

    Chronic diseases drive 75 percent of health care spending in the United States., and every year, they represent more than two "Wall Street bailouts," amounting to a whopping $1.5 trillion. If chronic diseases continue to affect more Americans at their current rate, the price tag could balloon to nearly $6 trillion by the middle of the century on the seven most common chronic illnesses alone. This is a fact that voters seem overwhelmingly familiar with. 

    However, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain look to be missing a prime opportunity to reach out to voters on this critical issue. Despite being a top priority for voters in health care reform, six in ten (60 percent) say this is not an issue that has been addressed by the candidates.  mericans’ are eager to hear how the next president plans to address the prevention and management of chronic disease once he is in the White House, but have been met with silence to date.

    The calendar is quickly approaching Nov. 4, but each candidate would be wise to utilize the time left to heed the concerns of Americans and address this looming concern at the forefront of voters’ minds, causing many to lose sleep.


    Arvid "Dick" Tilmar is a partner in Diversified Insurance Services Inc. in Waukesha and is involved with the Wellness Council of Wisconsin and the Well City Milwaukee project.

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