steffie-himmelstein-combo– Dr. Steffie Woolhandler and Dr. David Himmelstein are both associate professors of medicine at Harvard Medical School and primary care doctors at Cambridge Hospital. They co-founded Physicians for a National Health Program. –

Once they’re finished mandating that we all buy private health insurance, Congress can move on to requiring Americans to purchase other defective products. A Ford Pinto in every garage? Lead-painted toys for every child? Melamine-laced chow for every puppy?

Private health insurance doesn’t work. Even middle class families with supposedly good coverage are just one serious illness away from financial ruin. In a study carried out with colleagues from Harvard Law School and Ohio University we found that medical bills and illness contributed to 62 percent of all personal bankruptcies in 2007 – a 50 percent increase since 2001. Strikingly, three quarters of the medically bankrupt had insurance – at least when they first got sick.

In case after case, the insurance families bought in good faith failed them when they needed it most. Some were bankrupted by co-payments, deductibles, and loopholes that allowed their insurer to deny coverage. Others got too sick to work, leaving them unemployed and uninsured.

Now Congress seems poised to fulfill insurance executives’ prayers; make failure to buy their faulty product a federal offense. We’ve seen this brave new world in Massachusetts. Here, beating your wife, communicating a terrorist threat and being uninsured all carry $1000 fines. Our law has halved the state’s already low uninsurance rate – mostly by expanding Medicaid and similar programs at great public expense.