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Universal Health Care: the Wrong Prescription

Opinion Editorial
March 25, 2008

By Brian Schwartz

What good is having medical insurance if you cannot get medical care? Peddlers of “universal health care” – from Hillary, Obama, to 2nd Congressional democratic candidate Jared Polis – don’t get this.

“Universal health care” is false advertising for politically-controlled medicine, with government as the “single-payer” monopolistic insurer. But having coverage does not guarantee getting medical care.

Since patients prepay through taxes, medical care appears “free.” Hence, they have strong incentive to over-consume and providers need not compete on price. To contain costs, governments restrict your access to life-saving treatment. In countries with such “universal coverage,” patients die waiting for treatment.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal reports that in one year, 71 Ontario patients died while waiting for coronary bypass surgery and over one hundred more became “medically unfit for surgery.” The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports that “109 people had a heart attack or suffered heart failure while on the waiting list. Fifty of those patients died.”

“Physicians across Canada are in an advanced stage of burnout due to work conditions” which “causes them to retire early…or simply leave,” a former Canadian Medical Association president told the New York Times. He “attributed much of the problem to technological shortages and the powerlessness doctors feel when patients complain about long waits for treatment.”

“Access to a waiting list is not access to healthcare,” wrote Canadian Chief Justice McLachlin when striking down legislation banning private insurance in 2005. Last year a New York Times read: “As Canada’s Slow-Motion Public Health System Falters, Private Medical Care Is Surging.”

And England? The BBC reports that “up to 500 heart patients die each year while they wait for potentially life-saving surgery.” The Times claims that a British woman “will be denied free National Health Service treatment for breast cancer if she seeks to improve her chances by paying privately for an additional drug.” A Daily Telegraph headline reads: “Sufferers pull out teeth due to lack of dentists.” Another article says that “doctors are calling for NHS treatment to be withheld from patients who are too old or who lead unhealthy lives.”

Consider politically-controlled health care in America: Medicaid and Medicare. Doctors are five times more likely to refuse seeing new Medicaid patients than privately-insured patients. Increasing reimbursement rates won’t help much; more than two-thirds of doctors reported being overwhelmed by Medicaid’s billing requirements, paperwork, and delays in payment.

ABC News says that “Medicare rules bar cancer drugs for patients,” including the privately-insured.

“Single payer” advocates cite international comparisons of life expectancy to support their cause. But life expectancy depends on factors unrelated to healthcare, such as unintentional injury and homicide. Health economist Robert Ohsfeldt found that when accounting for these two factors, life expectancy in America is comparable to that of Canada and England.

What really matters is your chance of surviving a serious illness. The American Cancer Society claims that “U.S. patients have better survival rates than European patients for most types of cancer.”

So if politically-controlled medicine isn’t the solution, what is?

Not a Massachusetts-style “individual mandate,” which forces everyone to buy insurance. This is essentially single-payer in disguise. Insurance regulations severely limit competition, so insurance companies are effectively government contractors for politically-defined insurance.

The Boston Globe reports that to contain costs, Massachusetts authorities will “probably cut payments to doctors and hospitals” and “reduce choices for patients.” Sound familiar? Instead, we must recognize how government policies have crippled free markets. Because the tax code deeply discounts employer-provided insurance, you’re essentially stuck with your employer’s non-portable plans. Hence, insurance companies can afford to be stingy and deny you care; they know that losing you as a customer requires that you change jobs. With government as “single-payer” it’s even worse: to change insurance providers you must move to a different state or country.

Our current system also encourages thoughtless over-consumption and skyrocketing costs. The tax code punishes paying for medical care out-of-pocket and rewards buying insurance. So “insurance” has become prepaid medicine, and patients over-consume like business travelers dining on their company’s expense account.

Further, legislation mandating minimum benefits makes insurance unaffordable for many. Consider: Colorado law compels widowed wives to pay higher premiums for prostate screening, maternity, and marital therapy. Some Colorado legislators recognize this injustice. Just as businesses incorporated in other states can operate in Colorado, Coloradans should be able to buy affordable policies from insurance companies that meet less damaging regulations of another state.

While “universal health care” may provide health insurance; it doesn’t guarantee health care. The uninsured are not the problem rather they are the symptom of the real problem – government meddling in personal choices of how we care for ourselves and our families.