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Lack of insurance a national crisis

It takes a lot to get business and labor to sit on the same side of the table. But 41 million is a lot Ñ that's the number of uninsured Americans, and it's brought together labor and business, insurance companies and consumer groups, clinics and hospitals in an unprecedented effort, nationwide and here in Portland, to get the word out about this problem.

The plight of the uninsured is an issue that affects every one of us. The numbers Ñ almost 450,000 in Oregon Ñ are staggering, and they're only getting worse with our weakening economy. Eight of 10 uninsured people are from working families, and more than 25 percent are children. From 2001 to 2002, 1.4 million Americans lost health coverage.

When this many people are uninsured, it threatens both the physical health of our families and the fiscal health of our nation.

Uninsured women with breast cancer are twice as likely to die as insured women with the same diagnosis. Uninsured men are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with a late stage of colon cancer as men with insurance.

Our nation has the ability to provide the best medical care in the world, yet we still have millions of families that must resort for care to emergency room visits, which usually could have been avoided with affordable primary care in the first place.

The impact of being uninsured is even worse for our children. How can we expect them to excel in school when 70 percent of uninsured children do not receive medical attention for common ailments such as ear infections and sore throats? We owe our children the opportunity to succeed, and that requires a healthy mind and a healthy body.

When they do receive care, uninsured children are seven times more likely not to have a prescription filled. One of five parents without insurance for their children do not allow their children to participate in athletics out of fear of an injury that they wouldn't be able to afford to treat.

Contrary to popular belief, the uninsured are not the unemployed. As mentioned, eight of 10 uninsured people are from working families, and while many employers do offer health benefits for individuals, the employees often find the premiums too expensive to include family members. Private insurance is more costly than employer-based, and most working families exceed the income cap for public programs, leaving them with no other option than to go without.

Employers are in a bind, as well, as health care costs and the resulting premiums continue to soar. This increase, combined with retirees and their dependents living longer, creates a difficult environment for businesses to afford coverage for their employees, particularly for small businesses.

This problem is so urgent, and has such pervasive consequences, that dozens of organizations have pledged to be involved in the public dialogue needed to solve it. Both nationally and here in Oregon, business and labor have joined with health care workers, hospitals, doctors and civic organizations to be part of the solution.

All the members of the 'Cover the Uninsured Week' coalition may have different solutions in mind. We may even have different takes on the source of the problem. But we do agree that unless we put the uninsured at the top of our nation's agenda, we will continue to see our families suffer and our businesses compromised.

You may have the security of health insurance today. But just as we are coming together to be part of a long-term solution to this situation, we are encouraging Americans from all walks of life to do the same.

To learn more about how you can be involved in the solution, visit www.covertheuninsuredweek.org.

Alice Dale is president of the Service Employees International Union, Local 49; Barney Speight is director of public policy and government relations for Kaiser Permanente.