- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 14, 2001

The first rule in health care known for centuries as the Hippocratic Oath is: "First, do no harm." Too bad most members of Congress are lawyers rather than doctors.

Rather than heal what's really wrong with the U.S. health care system too much government regulation and red tape and too little freedom, security and choices for consumers the politicians seem intent on helping their fellow trial lawyers.

Thus, the hottest issues being debated on Capitol Hill these days are how to create a "Patients Bill of Rights" (how to sue everybody to get what you want), and how to create a massive and hugely expensive new prescription drug entitlement program (how to get the government to pay for whatever you want).

Hey, when it comes to wanting all seniors to have world-class health coverage and access to the best pharmaceuticals money can buy, I'm the first guy in the pool. The problem is that such government-knows-best legislation would end up doing more harm than good. Consider the "patients rights" bills moving through Congress. A recent study by the Employment Policy Foundation came to some disturbing conclusions about the effect of passing such legislation: 56,000 new lawsuits per year, $16 billion in higher costs to employers and insurance companies, 9 million more people without health insurance. Higher health insurance costs for everybody.

How is this a good thing?

Or consider the prescription drug debate. Two-thirds of all seniors actually already have their own private prescription drug insurance coverage. They don't need a new government program. And most seniors without such coverage have modest annual expenses. A March-April 2001 article in Health Affairs found that the average Medicare beneficiary without drug coverage spent $550 for prescription drug purchases in 1998. Sure, some seniors have special and very costly health problems and need special help. So let's help them.

But with Medicare already facing a huge financial crisis and the coming retirement of some 80 million Baby Boomers, should we really be creating an expensive universal drug coverage entitlement for everyone, even if it is not needed? How is this a good thing? Again, let's keep things in perspective.

One of our objectives must be to move medicines from the science lab to my family's medicine cabinet with the widest choice at the lowest prices to save my health and my children's and grandchildren's health. Too often, it is government that shortcircuits this process.

Medicine has progressed to a point at which it is possible to treat even quite serious illnesses with medications instead of institutionalized care and surgery, as in the past. But while it is much cheaper and safer to avoid hospitalizations by using prescription medications, it is not necessarily cheap. It is not unusual for a prescription drug regimen to cost hundreds of dollars a month, which to most people is a lot of money. It is much cheaper, however, than being hospitalized at a cost of thousands of dollars per day, and far preferable to being dead.

Moreover, prescription drugs are not commodities. They require the professional intervention of physicians and pharmacists in order to be truly effective. For example, many people with asthma must use a medication inhaler to relieve their symptoms. Inhalers cost around $45 each, and there are several types on the market. They have in common a need to be used properly, following fairly precise steps, or else that $45 is totally wasted and the person with asthma may end up in an emergency room as a result of an asthma attack. A professional, usually a physician or pharmacist, needs to show a patient how to use an inhaler.

The key is respecting and rewarding the doctor-patient relationship and understanding the important new role of pharmaceuticals in that relationship without doing more harm than good. Michael Kinsley, the former liberal star of CNN's "Crossfire," is not someone with whom I usually agree. But he recently wrote an essay for The Washington Post criticizing Congress' insistence on imposing "a massive new regulatory system" on the health-care industry and ignoring "the downside of this approach." What are such downsides? Mr. Kinsley believes they include "the enormous, though hidden, cost of litigation (the lawyers, the punitive damages, etc.), the inconsistent standards of judge-made law as opposed to uniform rules and vague but real a misplaced emphasis on justice in individual transactions over justice in general." Worst of all, Mr. Kinsley wrote, the government-knows-best health care legislation being debated in Congress "not only ignores but actually thumbs its nose at what is obviously the biggest gap in the social safety net: the millions of people with no health insurance at all."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Art Linkletter, a veteran TV host, is the honorary national chairman for United Seniors Association and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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