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Bring back the 'public option'

The way health care is administered in the United States is unsustainable and in need of fundamental reengineering — right? During the 2008 presidential race, the country appeared to be in agreement on this point. But that all changed somewhere, somewhere after the election of a dark-skinned new president with a foreign-sounding name whom even proud Medicare card-carrying Americans were viscerally driven to deride as a socialist.

This was recently reported in The Hill: "The six largest investor-owned health insurance companies saw a 22 percent increase in combined net income in the third quarter, putting them on pace to break profit records for 2010." The president was castigated by loud little crowds around the country for championing the overwhelmingly popular idea of a publicly funded, public health insurance alternative to challenge the partly publicly funded, private health insurance companies' assertion that they simply cannot provide their services any cheaper. Rather than groundbreaking legislation, what we got was the president being caricatured on national television, in effigy, as The Joker — and health insurance executives laughed all the way to the bank.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation paper, there are four recent occasions when private health spending per capita in the United States stopped its steady increasing and actually decreased: 1) The mid-1960s, with the passage of Medicare and Medicaid; 2) The early 1970s, with President Richard Nixon's wage and price controls; 3) The late 1970s, during the health insurance industry's "voluntary effort" in response to President Jimmy Carter's threatened cost-controlling regulations; and 4) The mid-1990s, with the introduction of managed care and another presidential threat: Bill and Hillary Clinton's attempts at health reform. (The chart of private health expenditures is humorously dramatic in its seismic shifts, as if plotting the position of a mouse quickly darting toward and away from the cheese against the presence and absence of the family cat.)

The major arguments against a public health insurance alternative are: quality of care (rationing!), waste (the government can't run anything!), and the American way of life (one huge step in the direction of an over-taxed, European-style welfare state!).

As economist Uwe E. Reinhardt points out, "rationing" is already a major problem in our current system, in the form of countless valid treatment requests that are routinely rejected by companies that simply do not wish to pay for them — not to mention all of the Americans who get little or no treatment because they have no insurance. The inevitable degree of rationing to be expected under a public health insurance program (shorter-than-desired hospital stays; reduced access to the latest, most expensive treatments; maybe waiting lists) is a reality of those unable to afford the more expensive insurers and the more luxuriant care they offer. This is precisely why it is ridiculous to assert that private insurers and their world-class coverage would disappear as a result of competition with a public program.

With regard to waste, according to KaiserEDU.org, at least 7 percent of health care expenditures in general are for administrative costs (e.g., marketing, billing), while this same percentage for Medicare is less than 2 percent. The evil bureaucracy, it seems, runs a more efficient ship.

What of the slippery slope toward a lethargic society rooted in expensive, unearned entitlements as opposed to accomplishment, kind of like what you now see in parts of Europe? This is a valid concern. But we already have universal public health care here in the United States. A summary of all the local and federal legislation defining this program reads something like: "Citizens without Medicare, Medicaid or private health insurance are afforded absolutely no benefits until they experience an acute medical crisis, in which case they shall be admitted to the nearest emergency room and lavished with the most expensive treatments for the most serious illnesses arising out of a lifetime of no cheap, preventative care."

Access in the early adult years and regular interaction with health care professionals provided by a public insurance alternative would likely give people on the margins of society more awareness about their lives and their well-being — and more of a feeling of ownership and stewardship over their lives.

Americans have the right to a public defender when unable to afford flashy private defense attorneys, but we do not have the right to a public doctor. Thanks to the anti-"public option" hysteria of a very loud few that gravely wounded a great attempt at revolutionary health care reform, we are left with a huge increase, in the coming years, of public funds directed to the same profiteering, investor-owned companies. Maybe the anti-Obama forces have it exactly right by seeking to repeal "Obamacare" — so that it may be rewritten to finally include a public insurance alternative.

Scott Carroll is a writer in Baltimore. His email is scottjuliancarroll@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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