I'm pleased to be joined today by representatives from the American Nurses Association on behalf of the 2.9 million registered nurses in America - men and women who know as well as anyone the urgent need for health reform.
I should disclose right off the bat that I have a long-standing bias towards nurses. When Sasha, our younger daughter, contracted a dangerous case of meningitis when she was just three months old, we were terrified. But it was the nurses who were there with us, explaining what was going on, telling us it would all be okay.
So I know how important nurses are, and the nation does too. Nurses aren't in health care to get rich; they're in it to care for us from the time they bring new life into this world to the moment they ease the pain of those who pass from it. If it weren't for nurses, many Americans in underserved and rural areas would have no access to health care at all.
That's why it's safe to say few understand why we have to pass reform as intimately as our nation's nurses. They see firsthand the heartbreaking cost of our health care crisis. They hear the same stories I've heard across this country - of treatment deferred or coverage denied by insurance companies; of insurance premiums and prescriptions that are so expensive they consume a family's entire budget; of Americans forced to use the emergency room for something as simple as a sore throat just because they can't afford to see a doctor.
This is a problem we can no longer wait to fix. Deferring reform is nothing more than defending the status quo - and those who would oppose our efforts should take a hard look at just what it is they're defending. Over the last decade, health insurance premiums have risen three times faster than wages. Deductibles and out-of-pocket costs are skyrocketing. And every single day we wait to act, thousands of Americans lose their insurance, some turning to nurses in the emergency room as their only recourse.
So make no mistake: The status quo on health care is not an option for the United States of America. It is threatening the financial stability of our families, our businesses, and government itself. It is unsustainable.
I know a lot of Americans who are satisfied with their health care right now are wondering what reform would mean for them. Let me be clear: If you like your doctor or health care provider, you can keep them. If you like your health care plan, you can keep that too.
But here's what else reform will mean for you: you'll save money. If you lose your job, change your job, or start a new business, you'll still be able to find quality health insurance you can afford. If you have a preexisting medical condition, no insurance company will be able to deny you coverage. You won't have to worry about being priced out of the market. You won't have to worry about one illness leading your family into financial ruin. That's what reform means.
The naysayers and the cynics still doubt we can do this. But it wasn't too long ago that those same naysayers doubted that we'd be able to make real progress on health care reform. And thanks to the work of key committees in Congress, we are now closer to the goal of health reform than we have ever been.
Yesterday, the House introduced its health reform proposal. And today, thanks to the unyielding passion and inspiration provided by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and the bold leadership of Senator Chris Dodd, the Senate HELP Committee reached a major milestone by passing a similarly strong proposal for health reform. It's a plan that was debated for more than 50 hours and includes more than 160 Republican amendments - a hopeful sign of bipartisan support for the final product.
Both proposals will take what's best about our system today and make it the basis of our system tomorrow - reducing costs, raising quality, and ensuring fair treatment of consumers by the insurance industry. Both include a health insurance exchange, a marketplace that will allow families and small businesses to compare prices, services and quality so they can choose the plan that best suits their needs; and among the choices available would be a public health insurance option that would make health care more affordable by increasing competition, providing more choices, and keeping insurance companies honest. Both proposals will offer stability and security to Americans who have coverage today, and affordable options for Americans who don't.
This progress should make us hopeful - but it shouldn't make us complacent. It should instead provide the urgency for both the House and the Senate to finish their critical work on health reform before the August recess.
America's nurses need us to succeed, and not just on behalf of all the patients they sometimes have to speak up for. If we invest in prevention, nurses won't have to treat diseases or complications that could've been avoided. If we modernize health records, we'll streamline the paperwork that can take up more than one-third of a nurse's day, freeing them to spend more time with their patients. If we make their jobs just a little bit easier, we can attract and train the young nurses we need to make up a nursing shortage that's only getting worse. Nurses do their part every time they check another healthy patient out of the hospital. It's time for us to do ours.
We're going to get this done. These nurses are on board. The American people are on board. It's up to us now. We can do what we've done for so long and defer tough decisions for another day - or we can step up and meet our responsibility as leaders. We can look beyond the next news cycle and the next election to the next generation, and come together to build a system that works not just for these nurses, but for the patients they care for; for doctors and hospitals; for families and businesses - and for our very future as a nation.