The political bathwater

Published 10:55 am Saturday, June 20, 2009

No one likes to admit their limitations. Every year around Father’s Day I’m reminded of a friend of mine whose then 5-year-old son decided to surprise him by mowing the lawn. Sneaking into the garage, there was no degree of will that could have compensated for his lack of capacity to fill the mower’s gasoline tank and push that mammoth machine. Yet, in his mind, his sheer determination was requirement enough to cut the lawn. At least, of course, until the majority of the gasoline spilled on the garage floor and he realized that he could barely reach the mower handles.

Washington doesn’t like to admit its limitations either — especially when it comes to issues like government-run health care where its political will far outweighs its proven capacity. Many Americans agree that health reform is necessary. But brewing among this consensus is the not-quite-fully-formed or fully-articulated fear, that amidst the enthusiastic reform-minded hubbub, Washington is about to throw the baby out with the bath water.

The bath water, of course, is the murky, confusing, ineffective inconsistencies and failures of our current health care system. We couldn’t be happier to throw that water out. But we want to know that in the midst of the political deal-making in backrooms of the Senate, or among the clamoring of the committee rooms of the House, in the hurried tumult of Administration offices, and at the late-night strategy session occurring along lobbyist-lined streets of DC, that someone, somewhere is going around reminding everyone: “Watch out for the baby.” We want to know that overseeing the politicians and bureaucrats marching to the same we-must-get-it-done-now chant that brought us the stimulus, GM bailouts, and TARP, is someone occasionally pulling the reigns saying, “Whoa, there. Don’t throw out the baby.”

The baby, of course, is what’s right with our system. It’s the health care coverage that works for many Americans. It’s the ability to choose between options. It’s the security that comes with knowing there are incentives for researchers, physicians, and providers to be looking for the next treatment, the next breakthrough, or next cure that just may save our lives.

While the rhetoric coming from Washington may sound good, we know the reality is that when it comes to the government there are more paths to making things worse than making things better. Concern over government-run health care is not based on greater cynicism or lesser intelligence on the part of the American people, but rather on experience. After all, we have the grand track record of governmental failures that brought us the likes of Katrina and the Bridge to Nowhere. When it comes to mom’s worsening Alzheimers’, dad’s depression, our child’s cancer diagnosis, or our own heart disease, waiting in line for health care rationed by 9-to-5 bureaucrats in the ornate buildings of Washington, D.C., is not just unsettling it is downright terrifying.

A government take-over of health care will be the slow suffocation of the doctor-patient relationship in America. This is because at the heart of government-run health care is the increase in political — rather than personal — control over health. In this world of “free” care, federal deficits will reach epic heights. Unelected bureaucrats, attempting to control costs, will ration care while simultaneously skirmishing with interest groups guarding their turfs. Congress will join in the fractured, irrational, and parochial decision-making. Doctors will duck for cover, attempting to salvage the viability of their industry. Caught in the political crossfire will be patients, “universally-covered” but with no control, no choice, and no voice.

Not only is government-run health care not what we want, it’s not what we can afford. If, as expected, health care reform costs a staggering $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years, Americans should brace for massive tax increases that extend deep into the middle class. Sadly, to compound the grim forecast is the fact that cost estimates for government programs have a track record of being wildly optimistic. When Medicare was instituted in 1965, it was estimated that the cost of Medicare Part A would cost $9 billion by 1990. In actuality, it set us back $67 billion. Similarly, in 1987, Medicaid’s special hospitals subsidy was supposed to cost $100 million annually; it cost more than 100 times as much. Particularly in the light of recent unprecedented spending and debt from bailouts, if the current cost estimate is off by a similar magnitude, we would be enacting a new entitlement literally with the capacity to financially ruin our nation.

So yes, the baby is on the line. Some politicians in Washington are convinced that they are smart enough to engineer more efficient medical practices. The irony, though, is that the only thing more bureaucratic and inefficient than our current healthcare systems is the federal government. The federal government attempting to provide health care to all Americans is like a five-year-old trying to cut the grass. Of course, in this case though, we’ll be grappling with far more than a dirty garage and an unkempt lawn.