EDITORIAL: Obama misidentifies ‘rationing’

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President Obama keeps lashing out against those trying to “scare” Americans about government rationing health care. In each of his town halls over the past week — from New Hampshire to Montana to Colorado — Mr. Obama repeatedly warned about his opponents using scare tactics. What’s truly scary is the president’s command of the facts.

Last week, Mr. Obama tried to convince Americans that it is insurance companies, not government, that impose rationing.

“Right now, insurance companies are rationing care,” he warned in New Hampshire. “They’re telling you: We’ll cover this drug, but we won’t cover that drug; you can have this procedure or you can’t have that procedure.” The president’s argument that it is private insurance companies that ration care has been picked up by everything from the evening news to Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

The problem is that the Obama story line misidentifies what rationing is. Rationing takes place when people want more health care than is available and thus cannot get the care they need.

There is no more rationing by private insurance companies than there is rationing at the grocery store. In a private system, consumers can buy more expensive health insurance plans if they want better benefits. Similarly, in a grocery store, if you want more food, you pay more money. There is no rationing in either case. Prices adjust until the amount people want is the amount that is provided.

The rationing argument is part of White House attempts to have it both ways in the debate over government health care. The president repeatedly has claimed Americans will get more coverage for less money with his plan. Now, not only is Mr. Obama griping about alleged rationing by private insurance, he is complaining that private insurance companies are spending too much money.

Proponents of government health care routinely highlight the supposed successes of similar nationalized health care systems in other countries. We agree with the implication that Mr. Obama’s proposed system is pretty close to the Canadian one, for example. But Canadians have to wait much longer for most procedures than Americans do.

Our own government is cutting back on its already low payments for Medicare and Medicaid, which means doctors and hospitals lose money on Medicare and Medicaid cases. If we had a government system only, those losses would lead to less care because cuts in service would result to avoid ever more losses. The reason we don’t have long waiting lines for patients in those government programs is that we have lots of patients with private insurance who can make up the losses. People pay more in private care to cover the losses in government care.

With people wanting more health care than government programs are going to provide, some government bureaucrat will step in to make decisions. That’s when rationing takes place — not in the private market, where there is a relationship between cost and benefit and people are willing to pay for more benefits.

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