Townhall | Maggie Gallagher | Apr. 8, 2008
Hillary Clinton had a great story to tell over and over again in her stump speech: An uninsured Ohio pregnant woman lost her baby and died because she could not afford a $100 up-front fee.
What a tale! What an indictment. What government bureaucracy could be worse than a health care system where stuff like that is permitted to happen?
But last week the Athens, Ohio, hospital where the incident allegedly happened poked a few holes in the fable: Yes, a woman died two weeks after her baby was stillborn. That much is true. But according to hospital administrators, everything else is fiction: The woman was under the care of obstetricians, she was never refused treatment by the hospital, and oops!, she was, in fact, insured.
“We implore the Clinton campaign to immediately desist from repeating this story,” said Rick Castrop, chief executive officer of the O’Bleness Health System.
To anyone with a passing acquaintance with how our health care system works, the story was always unlikely in the extreme: Hospitals in most states cannot refuse lifesaving emergency care, and pregnant women are covered by Medicaid anyway if they have no insurance and can’t afford $100.
But why ruin a good story by checking it out? You lose so many of them that way, as we journalists say.
Two more recent New York Times stories highlight the potential costs for all of us in putting health care into the hands of government bureaucrats. Take Great Britain, for example, home of the vaunted “single-payer” National Health Service. “Free health care for all” is its model, but since health care costs money, the result is the rationing of health care by government bureaucrats for whom cost-efficiency trumps patient autonomy and even human life itself.
Perhaps Hillary should start telling the tale of Debbie Hirst, a British breast cancer patient whose cancer had metastasized. Her oncologist suggested a drug, Avastin, which is widely used in the U.S. and other European nations to prolong the life of cancer patients like her. But bureaucrats had decided that at $120,000 a year, prolonging Debbie Hirst’s life would cost just too much money to be worth it. That’s bad enough, but because the government is committed to “equal care” for all its patients, the bureaucrats went even further: They told Debbie Hirst that she had to choose between buying Avastin on her own, and receiving any health care from the government at all. She could not, in other words, mortgage her own home to buy a drug to save her own life without being penalized by the loss of all her other cancer care and drugs.
Permitting patients to purchase care the government refused to provide would undermine the system, the bureacrats said. “That way lies the end of the founding principles of the NHS,” health secretary Alan Johnson told Parliament. And the system and its founding principles were more important than Debbie Hirst’s life.
Meanwhile in Massachussetts, the predictable effects of a more modest universal health insurance mandate is beginning to be seen: huge cost overruns coupled with dramatic increases in wait times for care. Only half of all internists in that state now accept new patients; between 2006 and 2007 the wait for an appointment almost doubled from 33 to 52 days.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” Dr. Patricia A. Sereno, state president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told The New York Times, speaking of the combination of 340,000 newly insured patients with low-reimbursement formulas for primary care physicians.
It’s a predictable disaster, of course, seen over and over again around the world: Government-financed health care means government rationing of health care, in a system where the prestige, status, freedom and pay of doctors who care for patients plummets over time.
But don’t expect Hillary or Barack to tell that truth any time soon.
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