- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Tucked away at the back of the new Medicare prescription-drug law is an ominous provision that looks like a roadmap to government-controlled universal health care. This provision has serious implications for every American. Indeed, it resembles Hillary Clinton’s notorious health-care task force.

The provision is titled “Health Care That Works for All Americans: Citizens’ Health Care Working Group.” It differs from the Clinton task force in that it purportedly intends to solicit input from ordinary citizens and the bill creating it had bipartisan support. Are these attempts to avoid the failure that has plagued proposed government health plans in the past?

The obscure section has two stated purposes. The first is to create the working group “to provide for a nationwide public debate about improving the health care system to provide every American with the ability to obtain quality, affordable health care coverage.” This debate will be initiated by the group’s holding hearings, sponsoring community meetings, making recommendations and publishing a national report on the U.S. health-care system.

Ominously, the other purpose is “to provide for a vote by Congress on the recommendations that result from the debate.”

In other words, the Health Care Working Group — using approximately $6 million of our tax dollars — will stir debate about government’s role in providing health care and Congress will have to vote on its recommendations.

To appreciate what the law sets in motion, look at a few of the items it mandates the working group to examine: “the capacity of the public and private health care systems to expand coverage options”; “the cost of health care and the effectiveness of care provided at all stages of disease;” and “innovative State strategies used to expand health care coverage and lower health care costs.”

The working group will make national recommendations on ways to cover the uninsured, allowing the public 90 days to submit comments. It then will submit a final set of recommendations to the president and Congress. Afterward, Congress is required to hold hearings on the group’s report and final recommendations before voting.

If history is any indication, the public’s comments opposing a greater government role in health care will most likely be ignored, as it was with the recent national medical-privacy issue. In fact, the law creating the working group is similar in many ways to the strategy used to create the so-called federal medical-privacy regulations, which actually authorize more than 600,000 entities to see Americans’ medical records without their consent. The strategy used to create these regulations involved slipping a provision into the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) when most people were focused on the debate over medical savings accounts. Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services held hearings on medical privacy, but most of them were stacked in favor of groups wanting greater access to patients’ medical records. When making the final privacy rule, HHS essentially disregarded comments from thousands of citizens demanding record confidentiality.

It would be a tragedy if a government health plan sneaked up on the American people the same way. If not watched closely, the working group could end up recommending a Medicare-like plan for everyone. Individuals could be forced to give up their private health insurance and join only federally approved insurance plans. Such a system would limit types of treatments and providers — and make it illegal for citizens to pay privately for health services covered by the new system. (This is what happens in Canada.)

Such a system could be especially damaging to the alternative health-care community, who already have been restricted disproportionately from serving patients under Medicare and other taxpayer-financed health services.

As the working group begins its work, two questions should be on everyone’s mind: Who should make health-care choices: the government, the medical industry or individuals themselves? And should people be forced to give up their private health insurance and join a federally mandated plan even if they prefer and can afford to pay privately for health insurance and services?

Let’s hope those who care about health freedom won’t let this stealth provision set in motion a juggernaut that will rob all citizens of their freedom of choice in health care.

Sue A. Blevins is president of the Institute for Health Freedom and author of “Medicare’s Midlife Crisis” (Cato Institute, 2001).

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