A special citizens' committee on health care headed by Arthur S. Flemming, a former secretary of health, education and welfare, said yesterday that 33 million Americans lack access to all public or private health insurance, and it opened a campaign for a universal national health care system.
Flemming, who headed a National Citizens' Board of Inquiry funded by the Villers, Field and Bydale foundations, said the need to close gaps in access to health care had been put "on a back burner" for several years because of the recession but is coming to the fore again due to severe deprivation of health care for minorities, the poor and nonworking women.
Dr. Phil Lee, an assistant secretary for HEW in the Kennedy administration, said the panel is not recommending a specific form of national health coverage, such as plans funded by a payroll tax similar to Social Security that have been proposed by several panel members in the past.
"There are five or six different views as to what to do," said Lee, adding that he favors a system similar to Canada's, which is funded by public money but run by the provinces.
Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of medicine at Harvard University, said the panel, which held 10 hearings across the country, found that in health care "the poor get the lower end of the stick and frequently get the shaft." Poussaint said that lack of access to medical care for blacks in the South was once blamed on segregation but now is the result of lack of money.
The panel said there has been a "sharp decline during the Reagan years" in the quality and range of health care, with budget cuts reducing Medicaid by $5 billion and Medicare by $13 billion below what would have been spent under previous law; 700,000 children struck from Medicaid in 1982; 200,000 people denied emergency hospital care in 1983, and 800,000 denied routine hospital care last year for lack of money.
The panel, which included many longtime national health insurance proponents, such as former United Auto Workers president Douglas A. Fraser and former HEW secretary Wilbur J. Cohen, said that unless the national health plan is accompanied by stringent cost ceilings for hospitals and other medical providers -- as contained in a bill sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) -- funding expanded coverage would be impossible.
It said regulations squeezing medical providers should be adopted rather than proposals to reduce benefits or make the poor and the elderly pay more for their health care.