As America prepares to reform our health care system, I wish to add some convictions reached while practicing surgery for nearly a half-century. Until about 15 years ago, doctors were powerful leaders in the health care system, taking their responsibilities seriously, and the system worked well. Then, dark clouds began to assemble and physicians began to lose their grip.

As the system faltered, physicians were not part of any changes except as pawns and bystanders. In short supply, we had crushing demands due to patient loads and were required to run practices of increasing complexity.

New arrivals appeared, calling themselves “health care professionals.” Seemingly overnight, they were “stakeholders,” and a metamorphosis occurred as medicine became big business. A new gold rush was on, lured by the attraction of the health care dollar.

The language of medicine changed with the arrival of HMOs, PPOs, surgicenters, for-profit hospitals and other schemes popping up like dandelions, fertilized by health care dollars totaling more than 15 percent of our GDP. Special interests arrived in the form of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries, distributing lobby dollars in all directions and receiving free range in return. Multimillion-dollar salaries and billions in stock options were awarded while the steely-gray clenched faces of bankruptcy adorned middle America.

Hospitals joined in, finding a way to control pesky doctors — they hired them — spawning an undesirable side effect of antagonistic competition. Hospital bills joined inflation in the health care sector, and ear-popping predictions were heard that health care soon would become 20 percent of gross domestic product — up from 7.2 percent in 1970. The cost of all U.S. health care surged to top $8,000 per person annually while Canada’s cost for universal health care was half that, and our outcomes were no better than theirs.

Our system lacks social justice for some 45 million Americans without health insurance and more who are underinsured. Huge layoffs due to the current recession are adding to these alarming numbers daily, with workers and dependents suddenly uninsured. Another surge is expected soon, when unemployed new college graduates hit the streets. We are ready to improve this situation by passage of universal health care legislation now.

Beyond that is a way to really fix the health care system. It is called “single payer.” Call upon our federal government to implement such a program, recalling that it already runs some of the world’s best and most efficient health care programs including Medicare, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and military medicine.

Be aware that single-payer is not socialized medicine. Single payer just means the government is acting as an administrator and best understood as being “Medicare for all.” Note that only about 5 percent of Medicare dollars are used in administering the program, while private cost for the same service consumes 30 percent of premium dollars — largely due to profit.

The new administration seems set on reducing health care costs and instituting a system of universal health care while leaving the current system in place, and adding a new federal health care insurance option. This is not adequate. The prior administration wanted an income tax deduction for health care insurance costs, plus health savings accounts — both are flawed and inadequate.

In his June 13, 2005, column in The New York Times, “One Nation Insured,” Paul Krugman convincingly extols the virtues of single payer. Krugman, a Times writer and professor at Princeton, was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. Ask Paul. If still skeptical, ask Joe. Joseph Stiglitz, when recently asked “Do you support single-payer health care?” answered. “I think I’ve reluctantly come to the view that it’s the only alternative.” Stiglitz is a Columbia professor — and also a Nobel Prize-winning economist.

Single payer could lead a powerful surge to recovery — sort of an economic wonder drug. Polls of Americans strongly favor single payer, yet our government seems reluctant to address this eye-to-eye preferring lesser action and tweaking along as before. We need to send a message to Washington, reminding it who their employers are. There is enough unemployment already, so we do not want to send pink slips to D.C. Feeling bad for the fat -cat special interests is intolerable, not after what they have done to us. Anything less may result in further collapse of a frail, teetering relic. We are near a solution of a serious issue confronting our economy. Doing the right thing now is crucial.

Richard C. Dillihunt, M.D., a retired

general, vascular and transplant surgeon, lives in Portland. He may be reached at