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If you think medicine is expensive now, just wait until it's free

Fri, Jan 19th, 2007
Posted in Commentary

I see that Tim Walz is in favor of socialized medicine. Of course he says that it's really not socialized medicine, it's a single-payer system. Let's not play word games with this. It is what it is even if some aspects of it might be privatized. If it is a monopoly ruled and paid by the government, it is socialized medicine whether you like the term or not.

Oklahoma Senator and practicing physician Tom Coburn says that our healthcare system is in intensive care and our approach has been to treat symptoms and not causes. In his estimation prognosis is not good. He points to Medicare as but one example. Currently we have an unfunded liability of $70 trillion for Medicare alone. That does not include Medicaid or any other program. Our country's entire net worth is $53 trillion. We can't get there from here.

Medicare alone has the potential of bankrupting our country. Going to a single-payer system would only bankrupt us sooner. As it is, Medicare will begin to run out of money in 2015. Senator Coburn says that three things will occur if we socialize medicine.

1. The U.S. will lose its technological lead.

2. Life expectancy will not increase.

3. Healthcare will be rationed.

What are the solutions? Senator Coburn says that the only viable alternative is to reestablish an individual's ownership of healthcare and the market place is key. He also says that prevention should be our priority and that cost and quality needs to be transparent. There are a number of ways to fix the mess we are in but explaining them would require two or three more longish editorials at least. But, one of our principle problems is that there is too much government involvement already.

If socialized medicine works so well then it would follow that the citizens in countries who have socialized medicine have equal or better treatment than we do. However, according to the British government there are about a million people waiting to be admitted into hospitals and in Canada there are about 900,000. Canadian and British doctors don't spend as much time with their patients because each physician has to see about 50 percent more patients than do American doctors.

In terms of medical procedures themselves, based on procedures per 100,000 people, US citizens receive dialysis at a rate 3.2 times that of Canadians and almost twice as frequently as the British. If you are over 75 in England you can pretty much forget about having access to dialysis. 65 and 55 year-olds fare only somewhat better.

Coronary bypasses are performed 5 times more frequently in the US than they are in Canada, and more than 3 times the rate in Britain. Angioplasty? More than 7.5 times more frequently in the US than in Canada and almost five times as often as in Britain.

As for cancer survival rates, about 80 percent of US women diagnosed with breast cancer survive as opposed 67 percent in France and Germany and 50 percent in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. About 80 percent of American men survive prostate cancer compared to 75 percent in Canada and less than 50 percent in Britain.

But it is far worse in Russian. Russians over 60 get little healthcare and for those over 70 their fate is grim.

Some estimates indicate that there are more than 45 million US citizens without healthcare. But that does not mean that these same people do not have access to medical treatment. They do, all of them. Hospitals cannot turn sick people away. By law they must treat everyone including illegal aliens.

Of the 45 million, almost one-third are eligible for free medical care but are not enrolled. 42% of the uninsured are in the 18 to 34 age group, a group that, on average, has far fewer health concerns than those who are younger or who are older. Moreover, one-third of the uninsured earn more than $50,000 a year and 17% earn more than $75,000 a year.

If 45-plus million don't have health insurance that also means that roughly 250 million do. Obviously, that coverage varies from terrific to so-so. Roughly 40 percent of our citizens already rely on government funded health care. As in other socialized medical systems the US government rations medical treatment. For example, Medicare, with its roughly 111,000 pages of guidelines, turns down about 20 percent of requested medical procedures. These include life-extending techniques such as bone marrow transplants for patients with bone cancer if patients are over a certain age.

We need to ask ourselves some questions. Do we really want to turn the Mayo Clinic, Johns-Hopkins, and all of the world's leading medical research facilities to include drug research over to a bunch of bureaucrats? Do we also want the government to be the monopoly in charge of all of our healthcare dictating what procedures can and cannot be done? Do we want bureaucrats telling doctors and nurses what their salaries are going to be? Do we want a health care system with flaws that are worse than those we already have especially when there are better free market alternatives?

As writer P.J. O'Rourke has said, "if you think medicine is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it is free".

Stan Gudmundson lives in Peterson.

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