The future of health care

Published 8:33 am Friday, February 27, 2009

As Americans, we have one of the best, most sought-after health care systems in the world.

Individuals come to the United States from all over the world to receive health treatments and procedures because of the quality of care they receive here. Thousands of foreign students choose to receive their medical education here because of the quality training we provide. But despite our first-rate care and training, we face an expanding array of health-care challenges, not the least of which are placing significant strains on our federal budget, on individual taxpayers’ family budgets, and on the 47 million Americans without health insurance.

According to Michael Leavitt, former secretary of health and human services, in the next two decades, Americans will increase spending on health care from 23 cents of every dollar earned to 41 cents of every dollar earned, including the amount it pays in taxes for Medicare and Medicaid. A study by Harvard University researchers found that 50 percent of all bankruptcy filings were partly the result of medical expenses. Entitlement spending, or government spending that takes place automatically every year without any new action by Congress, on programs like Medicare and Social Security, is currently two-thirds of our overall federal spending and growing.

These numbers are staggering, but I doubt that anyone is really that surprised by them. We have been feeling the cost of our current system for years, in our family budgets, in our health insurance premiums, in the surprise medical bill that comes in the mail and in our small-business expenses. And despite this fact, we still have yet to take any significant steps towards revitalizing the current system. Simply, we have outgrown it.

It is clear our health-care system needs to be revitalized, and the tough questions are how we do it and where do we begin? There are many in Washington that would have us believe that the answer is to let the government take control of health care and many others who believe that would be the worst avenue for us to take. Perhaps we can begin by considering what a government-run system would look like. Let’s take, for instance, Canada’s health-care model. In 2006, 70 percent of Canada’s health care system was financed by the government, compared to 46 percent in the United States.

Stories of poor care under government-run systems show us that the answer is not to dramatically shift our system away from a patient-centered system. Yet, just this month a number of concerning health provisions that will put our country on the path toward government-run health care were included in the $790 billion economic stimulus package. Our goal must be to seek a balance, by providing even higher-quality health care at an overall lower cost. We need to protect that individual right, while expanding access to care for seniors and low-income Americans. There are a few ways Congress can do this.

We need to increase choices for health insurance by allowing families to purchase insurance across state lines, to carry their insurance with them regardless of change in employment or a decision by an employer and to opt to use Health Savings Accounts.

We also need to bring our health care system into the 21st century through the use of technology. Out-of-control medical malpractice lawsuits have prompted physicians to order billions of dollars in unneeded tests, straining our health-care system and limiting the number of quality physicians to patients. Investing in virtual hands-on training for medical professionals and electronic charting for patients has been proven to reduce medical errors and could reduce health care costs up to $17 billion a year in the U.S. I have introduced a bill, the Enhancing SIMULATION Act (House Resolution 855), which would prioritize these common-sense technology efforts in our medical system, creating an important step forward in modernizing our current health care system.

Over the coming months, I will be following this issue of health care very carefully, seeking solutions that don’t just take the easy way out through broad and sweeping changes to our patient-centered system but that take small, but valuable, steps forward aimed at transforming our health care system. We stand at a critical juncture in our health-care system, but I am confident that we can maintain the best, most sought after system in the world if we transform our current system into one of empowerment, choice and quality for all Americans.