THE Clintons rode into town firing their pistols in the air and pledging to rescue us from the scourge of poor medical care and high costs. President Clinton's words were, "We are paying more and more and getting less and less."
Well, we are paying more and more, but we are also getting more and more. As Irwin Stelzer points out in the February issue of Commentary, quoting a leading research physician, "Since the early 1970s . . . there has been nearly a 40 percent drop in the death rate from heart attacks and a 58 percent decline in the death rate from strokes in the United States. But the rate at which people suffer heart attacks and strokes has not fallen to a comparable degree."
It's true, Mr. Stelzer writes, that 35 years ago, we were only spending 5 percent of gross national product on health care, while today we spend 14 percent.
But a Model T Ford also cost a great deal less in its day than a Taurus costs today, but the new car has expensive features like an automatic transmission, air conditioning, air bags and catalytic converter. We spend more, and we get more.
Within my own lifetime, I have seen the death rate from two kinds of cancer -- testicular and leukemia -- decline drastically, and that is just a snapshot of the medical advances of our time. It is an indisputable fact that medical science has been one area of human endeavor that has paid incalculable dividends for the money invested in the past 100 years.
Well, but what of the so-called "37 million uninsured"?
Even if the Clintons' figures were correct, the existence of people without insurance is an argument only for helping them to get insurance or care -- not for overhauling the entire system.
But their figures are not correct. Most of those who are called "uninsured" actually go without health insurance for only part of the year. According to the Census Bureau, only 15.7 million people were uninsured for all of 1987, and only 9 million lacked insurance for two years.
But there's another fact about the uninsured that the Clintons don't want you to know. Many of them choose to forego health insurance, and for the best of reasons. Sixty-four percent of them are in a group that doesn't use the medical system much -- those under the age of 39.
Are there people between the age of 40 and that of Medicare eligibility who come down with life-altering illnesses? Absolutely. Three percent of the uninsured report having been rejected for private health insurance.) Does dealing with their problems necessitate a huge new federal bureaucracy with hundreds of thousands of regulations and heaven only knows how much increased cost?
The Clintons are using these bogus figures about the uninsured as a way to breed fear and insecurity in people because they know that 80 percent of Americans are quite happy with the health care they are now getting. If their true concern were the uninsured, they could propose a system of government-subsidized insurance for them instead of the Rube Goldberg monstrosity Ira Magaziner has cooked up.
The Clintons have also dangled the tantalizing promise of lower costs for health care. But nowhere, in any country, is there an example of a government program lowering the cost of anything except with rationing. Right now, in the United States, mandates contained in the Medicare and Medicaid programs are pushing medical bills sky high. Doctors are required to provide treatment for drug abusers, for example, but are reimbursed by the government for only a percentage of what that treatment costs. That forces physicians and hospitals to charge their paying patients more (cost-shifting).
The grand Clinton vision of busy bureaucrats ironing out everything from ambulatory care to amniocentesis and making it all cost less in the end is a joke. Here's just one example of the law of unintended consequences: If the tax increase on cigarettes in the Clinton plan succeeded in reducing smoking, the Social Security and Medicare system would be burdened with billions more in claims. That's just one of thousands of assumptions that could be faulty in the Clinton plan -- a plan that should die an early death, before it can kill people.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.