- - Wednesday, June 8, 2011

“We don’t want to take away people’s health insurance,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius so graciously declared earlier this year. But then she quickly qualified that with these ominous words: “before they have some realistic other choices.”

Americans have overwhelmingly, consistently and wisely been opposed to a European-style, single-payer, government-run, socialized health care system. So how might the big- government types who are hell-bent on forcing their will upon us attempt to implement this oppressive system in America? Simple. By creating medical refugees desperate for any port in a storm. That storm is coming and, unlike global warming, it’s actually man-made.

America somehow managed to survive for 189 years without Medicare or Medicaid and, in fact, became the greatest nation in the history of humankind. Established in 1965 - a mere 46 years ago - too many politicians today lack the perspective to understand this health care altar at which they worship. Instead of reforming the system to align it with American values, they abuse it as an eternal source of giveaways to buy votes. As for the politicians of the 1960s, except for the mop tops and go-go boots, they were very much like the politicians of today: They made a lot of empty promises.

President Lyndon B. Johnson promised that Medicare would cost about $500 million a year - yes, million. He even said that if costs went higher, then he was going to look like the “worst kind of damn fool.” Just a year later, in 1966, the House Ways and Means Committee estimated that Medicare would cost about $12 billion a year by 1990. The actual 1990 cost was $107 billion - off by an order of magnitude but close enough for government work. And that’s when costs really took off. By 2008, annual costs hit $599 billion and the program for the first time went into deficit-spending mode.

For all the Democrats’ dishonesty and reckless spending, Republicans weren’t exactly blameless either. In 2003, President George W. Bush and a Republican Congress doubled down and ushered in the largest expansion in Medicare history with their senior citizen prescription drug entitlement program. They claimed the price tag would be $400 billion for the first decade but quietly adjusted that estimate upward to $534 billion just one month after passage.

Parenthetically, just three years later, in 2006, the free market roared as a private company in Bentonville, Ark. - without a single dime of taxpayer money or the compulsion from know-it-all government bureaucrats - lowered prices of the top 331 prescription medications to just $4 per month (and later to $10 per three months), not just for seniors but for all Americans. And equally importantly, Wal-Mart did not send the bill to our children.

Today we know that LBJ and a lot of other politicians indeed are the worst kind of damn fools. Medicare - like Social Security - is collapsing under its own weight and threatens to take America with it. The Medicare Trustees declared last month that Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance Trust Fund) will be insolvent by 2024, a mere 13 years from now. Others estimate it will be only nine years. The entitlement program has racked up almost $25 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Others say it’s actually $38 trillion. It turns out free health care is pretty expensive.

Despite Democrats’ breathless claims that private insurance companies are the enemy, it is our federal government that is the largest denier of medical claims in the world. And that’s before the president unleashes his rationing board, the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) or so-called “death panel.” And if that wasn’t enough, the Democrats have plundered $1.9 trillion from Medicare over the next decade ($8.2 trillion over 20 years) to fund Obamacare and have all but destroyed the popular Medicare Advantage program. Make no mistake: Obamacare is killing Medicare.

We have selfishly forced our children into lifelong indentured servitude to pay our debts, and for what, exactly? World-class, government-run health care? Not quite. The average U.S. life expectancy in 1965, the first year of Medicare, was 70.2 years. Forty years later, in 2005, it rose to 77.4 years, an improvement of 10 percent. Compare that to the 40 years before Medicare, from 1925 to 1965, when life expectancy improved by nearly twice that - 19 percent.

Medicaid is even worse. A recent University of Virginia study shows Medicaid surgical patients, for example, are 97 percent more likely to die than private insurance patients. And get this: They are 13 percent more likely to die than uninsured patients. This shouldn’t surprise you. Health care decisions that are based on political considerations are meant to benefit politicians, not patients. President Obama’s solution is to force even more people into government health care. Obamacare will increase the Medicaid rolls by 16 million poor souls.

In the few remaining years Medicare has left, dispirited doctors are already fleeing the program in droves - and medicine altogether - leaving behind helpless patients. Democrats’ only plan is to maintain the crumbling status quo: Plunder Medicare, chase more doctors away with an additional 30 percent cut in reimbursement next year, and then watch from the bleachers as Americans are turned into medical refugees desperate for any salvation.

The president’s intentions are chillingly clear: “I happen to be a proponent of a single payer universal health care program. … That’s what I’d like to see.” Obamacare is a major step in that direction. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to eliminate employer coverage immediately,” he says, but he can envision it “a decade out, or 15 years out, or 20 years out.”

Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, has put forward the only serious proposal to date that can save Medicare by reforming it into a system that is in line with America’s values. It wrestles control away from Washington and instead entrusts states and empowers American citizens. And this is precisely why Barack Obama and the Democrats oppose it.

Dr. Milton R. Wolf, a Washington Times columnist, is a board-certified diagnostic radiologist and President Obama’s cousin. He blogs at miltonwolf.com.