- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

I've become personally and intimately familiar with America's health care system. It started with chest pains, a sudden loss of breath, and a trip to an emergency room.

This year I've made at least six visits to area emergency rooms, several by ambulance. Cardiologists used a variety of methods to analyze my condition: stress tests, nuclear thallium tests and catheterization procedures. They found that two arteries were substantially blocked.

In February and April, angioplasty and stents were used to open the arteries. They wouldn't stay open. In June I suffered a heart attack, resulting in double bypass surgery. Early one August morning, I woke up with crushing chest pains. Inexplicably, one of the bypasses failed. A few weeks ago, I underwent another angioplasty and stent procedure. Yet, the pain persists.

I'm taking several miracle drugs to fight the heart disease and reduce the pain: clot busters, cholesterol fighters, blood thinners, and more. These medicines didn't even exist a decade ago.

My Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) has paid about $125,000 for my medical treatment. Since I'm 43 years old, it's likely to pay much more in the future.

My purpose in writing is not to be self-indulgent or elicit sympathy, but to send a warning that Vice President Al Gore's constant disparagement of America's health care system threatens to destroy the greatest health care system in the world. The dirty little secret is that the vast majority of Americans receive the health care they need, when they need it, whether or not they can afford insurance.

In addition to paying directly for their own private health insurance, or indirectly through their employers, the American taxpayers subsidize health care for the elderly through Medicare, and for the poor through Medicaid. Public hospitals are required to accept emergency room patients, whether or not they can pay their bills. And the much-maligned pharmaceutical companies spend hundreds of millions dispensing free prescriptions.

On July 28, the Wall Street Journal reported:

"Amid the growing furor about rising prescription costs, many patients and doctors aren't aware that the drug companies themselves give away millions of dollars worth of drugs each year. And it's not just poor people who qualify. Although the drug companies won't discuss criteria, patient-advocacy groups say they have seen families with incomes of $50,000 or more get free prescriptions.

"Most of the free drug programs require patients to apply through their doctors. In general, those who qualify are people who earn too much money to get government assistance but are facing a financial pinch because they have high medical costs and don't have insurance coverage for prescriptions. Patients who have maxed out their annual prescription insurance may also qualify.

"Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an industry trade group, said the nation's drug companies gave away 2.8 million prescriptions (this doesn't include drug samples) valued at $500 million in 1998."

Nonetheless, Mr. Gore contends there are seniors who must choose between prescriptions and eating. If so, why would his plan spend hundreds of billions to subsidize the large majority of seniors who already have prescription coverage or who can afford to pay for their own drugs? Mr. Gore lavishes tax dollars on people who turn 65, whether they're needy or not. And Mr. Gore assures us that this is only an "incremental" step in his march toward national health care.

Mr. Gore also disparages HMOs as cost-cutting bureaucracies that put profit ahead of patients. Yet it's Mr. Gore's administration, not HMOs, proposing deep cuts in payments for cancer treatments under the Medicare program in the name reducing costs. On August 6, the New York Times reported:

"In an effort to save money for Medicare, the Clinton administration is planning to reduce payments for anti-cancer drugs administered to patients in doctors' offices. This could affect hundreds of thousands of older patients. The move has provoked an outcry from patients, doctors, nurses and members of Congress, who say the cuts will make it financially impossible for many cancer specialists to provide chemotherapy in their offices."

Medicare is facing bankruptcy because it's an entitlement program that redistributes health care benefits to the elderly regardless of need, just like Mr. Gore's prescription drug proposal. The government creates increased demand by subsidizing it, and then can't keep up with the costs. The result: reduced services, e.g., cutting cancer treatments and higher taxes.

Mr. Gore's national health care dream is a reality in Canada. According to a Sept. 9 article in the Vancouver Sun, the system is a disaster:

"A group of Vancouver General Hospital surgeons say the province's health services are in such disrepair that for the first time, patients' lives are at risk. They described a surgical system in which patients needing such routine operations as appendectomies are left to the point of rupture and infection. They talked about patients with malignant brain tumors being unable to get timely surgery, only to suffer catastrophic setbacks that require lifesaving surgery in the emergency room."

This year, scheduled and day surgeries declined by nearly 15 percent over last year. Over the same period, emergency operations increase by nearly 8 percent. That's in part a reflection of patients being sicker before they can get surgery. There's a difference between a so-called right to health care and actually receiving quality health care.

If I lived in Vancouver, I might not be alive today. Mr. Gore proposes destroying the world's most compassionate, innovative and effective health care system to promote his personal political ambitions. Let's hope he fails.

Mark R. Levin is president of Landmark Legal Foundation

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