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What Happened To Health Care As An Election Issue?

In the early days of the 2008 Election, many analysts declared that healthcare would be a major part of the debate. While the issue has garnered brief mentions on the campaign trail last few months, serious talk about health care reform has been largely missing. Here's a sobering statistic: 45 million Americans are without health insurance. Perhaps even more sobering, though, is the realization that many of us are just one unlucky step away from joining them. Take Jackie Jones. "I had already been let go before they found the mass," says Jones. "The insurance was going to end on June 30 of that year and they found the mass on June 26. They didn't have time to get it taken care of to get in removed in four days." It was 2005 and the mass was on her uterus. The doctor thought it might be cancer. Jones didn't qualify for Medicaid because of the money she earned before she got laid off. And she couldn't afford to pay for short-term insurance out of pocket. Luckily, she qualified for charity care at a local hospital - and the mass was not cancer. Two months later she found a new job with insurance, and today her health is better as she stops for a bagel on her way to work. But she says those months without insurance scared her enough to make it her main concern this election. "I mean gas prices yeah, taxes yeah, but insurance that's number one - making it more affordable," says Jones. "I mean, because let's just say something else happens to me and I'm not working and can't pay for the surgery myself, what am I gonna do?" Like Jones, 86 percent of adults surveyed late last year by the Commonwealth Fund said the candidates' views on health care reform would be a significant factor in their choice. In reality, UNC-Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig says things are playing out as they usually do. "Health care tends to be an issue that people rate highly when they're asked what they're concerned about, but when they start hearing about it their eyes tend to glaze over," says Heberlig. The complex details of health care reform don't make for good bumper stickers or headlines, he adds. So, candidates usually give one major speech on health care - which Barack Obama and John McCain did during the primary. Since then, Heberlig says it's been easy for the spotlight to focus elsewhere. "Anytime the economy goes through a swoon, that's obviously going to trump everything else," says Heberlig. "But even the past few weeks when we were focused on who's wearing lipstick and who isn't. That kind of silly stuff can easily force out complicated issues as well." So for the moment, health care only shows up on the stump in sweeping promises. . . At the Republican National Convention, Senator John McCain declared "My health care plan will make it easier for more Americans to find and keep good health care insurance." "I'll finally keep the promise of affordable, accessible health care for every American," promised Senator Barack Obama at a recent rally in Charlotte. Or else, health care is used as a means to the opponent: (McCain) "His plan will force small businesses to cut jobs, reduce wages and force families into a government run health care system . . . (Obama) That's right John McCain says he wants to do to the health care system what Washington's done to the banking system! On the frontlines of the healthcare problem is Donna Lacey at the Charlotte Volunteers in Medicine Clinic. She sees patients for free who are too poor to pay for health insurance and too rich for government aid. "Most of our patients, believe it or not, are employed - jobs that don't provide health insurance," says Lacey. "And what I'm hearing more in the last several months is I lost my job, so I lost my insurance." To Lacey, the idea that the economy has overshadowed health care in the election campaign is frustrating. Health care and the economy are inseparable, she says: The number of people without insurance is growing as companies lay people off and cut benefits. Those uninsured people, in turn, increase the burden on the economy. "You have people who have a blood pressure that stays out of control for so long they develop kidney disease," explains Lacey. "If we had dealt with that when they had a blood pressure that could have been controlled with one four dollar medication then they would not have swung onto the Medicaid rolls and now be on dialysis four days a week." So even if the details of health care reform don't fit as easily into stump speeches and headlines as dramatic news from Wall Street, Lacey says surely there's room for more than we've heard lately. "Yes we have problems with the economy that is falling apart, but we've got to deal with this issue of keeping people healthy so they can work so that they can contribute to the economy." Perhaps the best chance for healthcare to steal a piece of the spot light will be tomorrow, when Obama and McCain meet in their first debate of the general election.