Government-run health care will not solve problems

Posted Sept. 17, 2009, at 8:54 p.m.

Many Washington politicians aim to persuade Americans that a government-run public option plan is the silver bullet to end our nation’s health care crisis.

The public option would create in America the health care Canadians now enjoy. The perks of this government-run care include long waits to see specialists, medical decisions made by bureaucratic planning boards and limited access to new treatments.

Still, many politicians continue to advocate for a government-run plan in America. They allege this option ensures coverage for millions of uninsured Americans, creates new competition to drive down private insurance premiums and guarantees access to the most advanced medical care.

Despite what politicians would have us believe, government-run health care is too costly and poses too great a threat to the quality of care Americans receive today.

Maine’s own experiences with a government-run plan are proof any national reform including a public option will fail. In 2005, Maine’s version of the public option, DirigoChoice, took effect. Dirigo’s proponents promised all 128,000 uninsured Mainers would be covered by 2009, that the program would pay for itself through savings created in Maine’s health care system and that funding for the program would never require a tax increase.

Each of these promises has been broken.

Today, only 9,600 Mainers are enrolled in Dirigo, 6,200 of which dropped private insurance to join the taxpayer-funded plan. This means only 3,400 Dirigo enrollees were previously uninsured — just 3 percent of the total number of uninsured Mainers.

Dirigo has cost Maine taxpayers $155 million in just four years, enrollees’ premiums shot up 74 percent and benefits have been slashed. To continue funding this failing program, the Legislature recently enacted a 2.4 percent tax hike on health care claims. This will cost the average Maine family up to $400 more each year in health care expenses. And to top it off, Dirigo has been closed to new enrollees for two years.

Dirigo has been a costly failure for Maine, and we can expect the same results nationally. In fact, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that health reforms debated in Washington today will cost taxpayers over $1 trillion.

While cost and sustainability are important to any health care debate, as a physician I look beyond the bottom line.

There is compelling evidence that the medical achievements and quality of care in nations with government-run health care lag far behind the accomplishments made in America. The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine is awarded to individuals who make significant discoveries in the areas of health. Since 1990, 24 U.S. scientists have won the award. During that same time, only seven winners were from the United Kingdom, also under government-run health care. And the first and only year a Canadian scientist won was in 1923.

Government-run health care does not foster scientific discoveries that improve life expectancy and treatment. Nationalized health care, which the public option would create in America, jeopardizes future medical breakthroughs that will benefit the entire world.

We must also be mindful of the risks to patients posed by a government-run health care system. Patients must always be the highest priority of any health reform.

I talked with a friend of mine who recently returned from a trip to New Brunswick to visit family. He shared with me that, while at church, one of the prayer requests was for a member of the congregation to receive her authorization from the Canadian government to visit a heart specialist.

Is this the type of health care we want in America? Certainly not. In fact, the average wait time for a patient to receive elective cardiovascular surgery in New Brunswick is 11.5 weeks. And in Nova Scotia, the average wait time to see an oncologist is a frightening 27 weeks.

There is no question our health care system needs reform. Too many Americans struggle to afford premiums and many cannot afford private coverage at all. This is a challenge that must be addressed, but it must be addressed responsibly to do what is best for patients. Enacting a government-run public option is the wrong way to solve our nation’s health care challenges.

After graduating medical school, physicians are required to take the Hippocratic Oath. Perhaps the most important aspect of this oath is “do no harm.” As politicians in Washington continue to debate health care, I hope they will preserve what works in our health care system to ensure American patients can continue to have access to the quality health care they expect and deserve.

Bob Walker of Lincolnville is a diagnostic radiologist practicing at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast. He is a member of the Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights www.protectpatientsrights.org.

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