Rebirth of Reason


The High Costs of Free Health Care
by Andrew Bissell

“The best things in life are free.”

It’s an old saying, one your parents may have used around Christmas or a birthday to hint that you wouldn’t be getting that pony or car you wanted. In general, it’s true: the best things in life—love, friendship, intellect—really are free. But there are plenty of other great things, things we’d all hate to do without, that cost money. Travel, education, and food are just a few of these things. Health care is another.

Yet, while we usually accept that things like food and travel must be paid for, many Americans seem to have been convinced that health care is an exception, that it should be free and available whenever desired, as if it grew on trees. Some of us go wild with indignation when asked to pay the same amount for a surgery to fix our own bodies as we might pay for a car or a down payment on a house.

To fix this alleged grievance, Democratic leaders like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Howard Dean have endorsed so-called “universal coverage” plans, where health care for all citizens would be administered and paid for by the federal government. Not to be outdone when it comes to federal spending, the Bush administration expanded Medicare to cover seniors’ prescription drug costs, and has done little to fulfill its campaign promises to make free market reforms in health care policy.

When liberals and conservatives come to any sort of agreement about expanding government power, you can bet it won’t be long before they go right ahead and do it. The federal role in the health care industry has steadily grown, to the point where an estimated 45 percent of all health care costs are now paid by the U.S. government. These policies have predictably led to inflated demand and rising costs of care. Still, despite the fact that American medicine is nearly half-way socialized, public health care’s proponents continue to misplace the blame for these skyrocketing costs on the free market.

If you want to make something abundant and affordable, putting the government in charge isn’t exactly the first thing that should come to mind. Neither is socializing the costs, which cultivates an “everyone pays, I benefit” mentality, and encourages participants to demand the most expensive (and, in many cases, frivolous) care available.

Then you have the shameful behavior of congressional Republicans in the Terri Schiavo case, which should give anyone pause as to whether we really want these men and women handling our health care system. Congress can’t even let us die in peace, and we’re supposed to put them in charge of keeping us alive?

We are also fortunate to have the examples of other countries to serve as a warning against the perils of collectivized medicine. For instance, in Canada, private insurance and care for cases of serious illness had to be outlawed to prevent competition with inefficient, slow service at public facilities. In our neighbor to the north, services are paid for not with dollars, but with time—often spanning months—spent waiting in queues for checkups and operations.

Socialized health care systems like Canada’s always favor safety and restraint over risk and innovation. The result is greater equality and stability, purchased at the cost of human health and human lives.

Health care is no different from any other service, except that it requires so much more investment—in education, technology, and time—to be done right. No amount of legal tinkering and government intervention can change that. Health care is a need too important to be entrusted to one institution, especially one as bloated, self-important, and inefficient as the federal government.

What is really needed are the same forces that make other goods and services so widely available: freedom of competition, consumer choice, and individual payment of costs. In other words, we need a truly free, laissez-faire market in medicine.

Forget “the best things in life are free.” When it comes to health care, the catch-phrase to keep in mind is, “you get what you pay for.”

This column originally appeared in the Montana Kaimin on March 29, 2005.
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