Thursday, March 11, 2010

Last week brought bad news for universal health care. On Friday, the Daily Telegraph exposed Britain’s

National Health Service’s secret plan to close hundreds of hospital wards after the next general election. Massive budget shortfalls will force Britain’s government-run health care system to take this highly unpopular step in order to constrain costs.

Also on Friday, the American people saw the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) grim prognosis for America’s fiscal future. During the next 10 years, the CBO estimates, President Obama’s budget will generate $9.8 trillion of additional debt, $1.2 trillion more than the president estimated. By 2020, American foreign debt will skyrocket to $20.3 trillion, leaving Americans with a $916 billion bill just to cover that year’s interest.

These two stories raise the age-old question: “Is health care a right or a privilege?” Secular progressives think universal health care is a right. In fact, Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, went so far as to declare health care an inalienable right: “What this bill does is we finally take that step. As our leader said earlier, we take that step from health care as a privilege to health care as an inalienable right of every single American citizen.”

But Britain’s National Health Service demonstrates that what the government giveth, the government can also taketh away - especially when it runs out of money. Viewed from this perspective, access to quality health care is very much a privilege. Even more, quality care is a privilege that can be lost if Washington gains control of the U.S. health care system even as it drives America over the fast-approaching fiscal cliff.

President Obama recently said this is not a Harry-and-Louise moment - he thinks this is a Thelma-and-Louise moment. Perhaps the president should watch the movie again. Things do not work out so well in the end: Throwing all sense of self-preservation to the wind, Thelma and Louise race off the cliff, plunging into the canyon below. Generally speaking, our finely tuned sense of self-preservation is there for a reason.

Common-sense Americans understand that our government cannot create another $1 trillion entitlement and survive - even if purportedly offset by Medicare cuts and tax increases. Why should “We the People” believe our government won’t cut access to health care when the money runs out? What makes America so different from Britain? Britain has shown the inevitable end of a nation that combines government-run health care with massive federal debt. Maybe Britain is experiencing its own Thelma-and-Louise moment.

The health care legislation being pushed by Washington will fail because it does not address the two fundamental flaws of our current system:

(1) Current legislation fails to give patients a reason to ask, “How much does this cost?” and “Do I need this test?” Studies suggest that even if one in four patients routinely asked these questions, health care spending would drop by an estimated $50 billion every year without the government rationing care.

(2) Current legislation fails to protect physicians against frivolous lawsuits. Until this changes, doctors will continue to practice defensive medicine, ordering approximately $120 billion worth of extra tests and consults every year.

Without addressing these two primary drivers of health care spending, we will not bend the curve of rising health care cost without rationing care. As a working physician, I see our need for health care reform on a daily basis. Yes, we must control the cost of health care. Yes, we must address the rising number of uninsured. However, it is not too late to begin again and get it right.

Britain’s experience shows America that health care is a privilege that can be lost under the weight of crushing debt. There is another way forward. Washington, slow down and get this right. America’s fiscal cliff lies just ahead.

Dr. C. L. Gray is president of Physicians for Reform.

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