Flood insurance by the government, but no public option

Originally published in MedPage Today

by John Gever

This meditation was evoked by the prospect that my basement could be filled with E. coli-laden mud next week.

I live within a few yards of Wheeling Creek, a tributary of the Ohio River that drains about 250 square miles of northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. This week has brought temperatures near 70 degrees, melting the enormous snowfall that hit the region last month. Because this had been predicted days ago, the likelihood of flooding has also been well known for days.

That prompted my wife to remind me to pay the flood insurance bill, due next Friday but forgotten (by me) in a heap of unsorted mail.

Flood insurance is a wonderful thing when your house sits in a 25-year flood plain. Actually, Wheeling Creek tends to flood more frequently than that. The last time was in 2004 when what was left of Hurricane Ivan dumped 10 inches of rain in a day or two. Just about every home in my neighborhood got a new furnace and water heater, thanks to flood insurance.

I buy my flood insurance through State Farm but the company is just a sales agent. Flood insurance is actually a federal program.There is no way a private company could possibly finance insurance for homes in flood plains that do flood regularly, at least not with premiums that homeowners could possibly afford to pay.

It costs about $1,000 per year for my house. That’s nearly twice what we pay for the regular homeowners policy, but then the risk of flooding here is greater than the risk of fire or other calamities. Thus, I felt a sense of relief when I dropped off my check at the agent’s office, knowing that I won’t have to pay a whole lot more if I come home next week to a stinky mud lake in my basement.

Thousands of homes in this area face the same or worse risks from this weekend’s flooding that my neighborhood does. Across the country, millions of people live in flood-prone areas. I don’t know what proportion have bought flood insurance, but I bet it’s also in the millions.

This is not like fire insurance; most houses, wherever they are, don’t burn down. But most houses in flood plains do eventually get flooded. Payouts are inevitable.

In that way, flood damage is a lot like human sickness. Everybody requires healthcare eventually, just like every house in a flood plain is going to get flooded.

Here’s another similarity. The private insurance industry can’t provide affordable health coverage for a large minority of people, just like it can’t afford to provide flood coverage to the homeowners at risk for flooding.

The federal flood insurance program has been in place for decades without much controversy.

But when a public insurance system is proposed for healthcare — just as an option, mind you, never mind single-payer — we hear shrieks about socialism and redistribution of wealth and unfair burdens on the taxpayer.

Can we please have some consistency?

John Gever is senior medical editor at MedPage Today and blogs at In Other Words, the MedPage Today staff blog.

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