- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

Surprise. Real vision has again come from Washington. In a follow-up to Congress’ Medicare Act of 2003, which created health savings accounts coupled with high deductible insurance, allowing patients to pay directly for most medical care, the president has introduced fairness into the tax code by giving a tax break to all health insurance buyers. This is a major step toward making health insurance affordable to those who want it.

This tax reduction applies whether or not the employer provides health insurance benefits — a key step toward delinking health insurance from employment. Additionally, excess health insurance tax breaks are capped, discouraging misincentives for health-care overspending. The Bush plan empowers consumers and will also generate new competition in the health insurance marketplace.

The least-heralded and, in the long term, perhaps the most important effect of the president’s plan is forcing health insurance costs to become visible to individuals’ taking their new tax deduction. Transparency is vital to true consumer empowerment, and health care is the most mysterious and concealed industry in America. This lack of information starts with pricing.

Unlike other products and services, consumers use medical care without having any idea of its true costs. Can you imagine buying a house, a car or a dress without knowing what it would cost? Without price information, it is impossible to be an informed customer.

The lack of health-care information, however, extends well beyond the prices of medical services. Most consumers are shielded from understanding the true costs of insurance because they are shielded by the middle man — their employer. By making insurance prices transparent to individual buyers, health insurance can then be dissected, compared and assessed for value, an essential ingredient for unleashing the power of market forces and competition.

Too many inappropriate government mandates in the health-care system have negative and embarrassing consequences, including the government’s stranglehold on pricing and the list of state-mandated insurance coverage for fringe, pseudo-medical therapies. One only needs to glance northward to Canada, with its scandalous lack of access to timely health care, to see what is so unacceptable about a centralized, government-controlled and wholly mandated health-care system.

Our government, however, can play a crucial role in mandating knowledge — the ultimate power — to the patient.

First, government should demand that the prices of medical procedures be fully available and clearly presented to patients before any medical procedure. It is unconscionable that patients are blind to the costs of hospitalization, diagnostic studies and the long list of procedures that appear on their medical bills until after the care has been administered.

Second, government should mandate that information about the qualifications of doctors be made available to their potential patients. Restaurants must post inspection results of their facilities. Automobile dealers must post mileage data on their cars. Yet doctors are not required to inform their patients whether they are board certified and deemed qualified in their field of practice.

Americans have come to expect the most advanced health care in the world — perhaps rightfully so because America leads the way in technology-based medical innovation. Indeed, despite being mischaracterized by the media and politicians alike, Americans have it all, in terms of both capability and access.

The rising cost of American health care, however, has been used as an example of the failure of “private” health care, despite its being one of the most highly regulated in the world, at a cost of more than $330 billion.

Our entire health-care system must be made transparent, and President Bush’s plan encourages the process. But more must be done to ensure informed decisions by our citizens, which is the key next step in health-care reform.

Empowering patients with information and financial control for their health-care decisions will stimulate value-conscious choices and, thus, providers’ appropriately pricing of their medical procedures. Let the light shine in.

Scott W. Atlas, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is a professor at Stanford’s School of Medicine,

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