Monday, January 7, 2008

Colorado Springs Gazette OpEd on Health Care Reform

The January 4, 2008 edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette has published a good editorial on health care reform in Colorado. Both Brian Schwartz and myself were cited in their OpEd. Lin Zinser and Ari Armstrong also gave their editor (Wayne Laugesen) a great deal of background information, although their names don't appear in the piece.

Here is the full text of their OpEd:
Health care, ho!
State should avoid repeat of Massachusetts
THE GAZETTE January 3, 2008

For Colorado Democrats, a regulatory fix of the state's ailing health care system may seem irresistible during the upcoming 2008 legislative session. Imagine the attention major health care reform, or statewide "universal health care," would garner from the media in August, when the country's Democrats converge in Denver for the Democratic National Convention. Colorado could be held up as the example of how it can and should be done. Democratic leaders could be lauded for aiding 792,000 uninsured men, women and children.

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, as quoted in The Gazette, says Coloradans are tired of waiting on a federal government that "cannot or won't fix" the health care crisis. The Blue-Ribbon Commission on Health Care Reform, appointed by legislative leaders and the governor, will present its recommendations to the Legislature on Jan. 31. The commission plans to recommend that all Colorado residents be mandated to buy insurance that meets minimum standards, and state subsidies would be extended to more of the state's poor.

Before politicians get too ambitious, however, they should take a closer look at the health care reform led by a leading Republican: Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.

"The majority of the commission favors a government-heavy proposal," says Dr. Paul Hsieh, a Denver physician who has studied the new Massachusetts system. "They're crafting it similar to the Massachusetts model."

A year old, the Massachusetts system is resulting in rationing and shortages of care, and higher costs to taxpayers than originally expected. The Patriot Ledger newspaper tells of Lee Sampson, a 47-year-old unemployed medical transcriptionist. Sampson bought into Commonwealth Care, a state-subsidized insurance cooperative. She had to buy insurance by Jan. 1 to avoid tax penalties and fines.

But Sampson, like a growing number of other Massachusetts residents, is learning that mandatory insurance doesn't mean doctors will treat her. To receive benefits from the plan, Sampson must find a primary care physician. She reported calling 50 doctors' offices within a half-hour drive of her home. All rejected her. Most explained they were overwhelmed and accepting no new patients.

Massachusetts, like Canada, will learn that mandating health care as a universal right results in a demand for services that exceeds the supply. The demand for medical services under the new Massachusetts system has become so great, and so expensive, that state officials are cutting back on the compensation doctors receive for services, while raising patient co-pays. The medical community, struggling with high demand and inadequate reimbursement, is cutting costs by rationing services for patients like Sampson.

Ask Americans if they would enjoy free universal health care, like the Canadians have, and many will say yes. Ask the same folks if they'd like to wait several months for an MRI, a heart scan or chemotherapy -- as Canadians often do -- and they'll give a resounding "no way."

Yet one can't argue that our nation's health care system is well. As reported by The New York Times, health care costs are going up at twice the rate of inflation. With soaring costs come rising insurance rates, which fewer employers and individuals are willing or able to pay. Based on U.S. Census data, 10 million Americans were uninsured 15 years ago. Today, more than 46 million live uninsured.

While it's expedient for politicians to promise a solution in the form of a program, Massachusetts will continue showing us why it doesn't work. Government intervention, in fact, explains the failures of our current system. The IRS code drives most Americans to buy health insurance through employers. That means insurers don't have to compete for consumers, because for most Americans, shopping around for a better deal involves a career change. And because health insurance has been packaged as a "free" benefit from employers, patients have spent the past half-century consuming health care without challenging the price. For those with health plans, "insurance" has morphed into pre-paid service, seemingly paid for by someone else. Imagine a system in which large employers provided auto insurance. Would employees balk at the cost of this "free" benefit, demanding a better price? If the insurance covered routine oil and lube jobs, the way health insurance covers physicals, would consumers demand lower prices from Grease Monkey? Doubtful.

State legislators can't change the morass of federal regulation that has led to a health care system unrestrained by the conventional market forces that control other services and goods. But legislators can improve access to health care by eliminating most of the state controls that prohibit affordable coverage. State law, for example, requires that health insurance plans include coverage for childhood autism -- even for consumers with no prospect of children. Regardless of a consumer's personal needs, any policy he or she buys in Colorado must cover alcohol rehab, mental health and maternity treatments -- to name a few. Why not a law that says all cell phone plans must come with 80-channel cable TV?

Brian Schwartz, an Arvada-based optical engineer, proposed to the Blue Ribbon Commission a market-based health care reform package that mostly involved deregulation. Commission member Linda Gorman fought for it, but others scoffed.

"One commissioner said we already have a free market in health care, and it has failed," Schwartz told The Gazette. "But we don't have a free market. If you're a widow, you have to buy a policy that covers marital therapy, maternity and prostate cancer. You have no need for this, but if you want insurance you're required to buy it. Mandates raise your premium by 20 to 50 percent."

Government, as we're seeing in Massachusetts, can't make health care affordable and abundant. Market forces can and will -- if politicians ever allow them to.