Global Matters: Health care rhetoric is enough to make you sick

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It’s difficult to imagine a more disheartening display of public discourse than that which has surrounded the recent debate over health care in this country.

From the confrontational smack-down between an angry constituent and Sen. Arlen Spector, D-Pa., to the pistol-packing zealot outside a town hall gathering in New Hampshire; from the assault-rifle bearing libertarian in Arizona, to the shrew shouting “Heil, Hitler!” at a Jew at a health-care forum in Nevada, it seems we are intent on blazing new paths back to the primordial ooze from which our species emerged.

And for what?

Do people really believe that a government-administered “public option” to provide every American with health insurance will hurl us into an abyss of government mind control? Why does government involvement in health care strike mortal fear into the hearts of so many?

When a veteran returns from the military to civilian life, she benefits from single-payer, government administered health care provided by the Veterans Administration.

When an American reaches the age of 65, he becomes eligible for single-payer health care funded by Medicare.

If a family’s income or personal circumstances qualify them, Medicaid provides health care.

Tens of millions of Americans benefit from government-funded or administered health care every day. What’s more, nearly every American benefits from the role of government in many aspects of daily life.

The list of services provided by government, and funded by our tax dollars, is so lengthy that it cannot fully be explored in this short piece. Think federally funded medical research; think scientific investigation that enhances our understanding of the universe; think regulation of our air, oceans and rivers that gives us at least a fighting chance to live healthier lives; think minimum standards for vehicle safety, aircraft safety, food safety and so on.

Many say that health care administered by the government is a different animal, because government involvement in health care somehow puts a remote bureaucrat between a patient and her physician, resulting in the rationing of care, the potential for abuse of the individual by a faceless bureaucracy, and the general encroachment of government on our freedoms.

But all of this is either demonstrably false or needless fear-mongering. Maybe the problem isn’t government at all.

In the first place, as previously noted, government is already involved in the administration and delivery of health care. Some 51 million Americans are covered by Medicaid; 45 million are covered by Medicare; nearly 8 million are enrolled in the Veteran’s Administration health-care program, and 5 million are covered by “SCHIP,” the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

While there’s always room for improvement, the vast majority of patients receive quality, decent health care from a health-care professional, unimpeded by Orwellian government intervention in a patient’s treatment.

In the second place, why is it by definition preferable to have a private insurer determine what services will be provided, what treatment will be covered, or how much a physician will be paid for a service? Why is it any better for a patient to have life and death decisions – i.e., whether particular therapies or transplants will be covered expenses – made by an employee of an insurance company than by a government administrator?

Nearly all of us have engaged in “discussions” with our insurers over what is and isn’t covered. If we fail in our efforts to secure coverage, or if coverage has been denied and we believe we have been harmed, what is our redress?
At the very least, if the government is involved, we have redress through the constituent services provided by our elected representatives. We also have the ballot box.

How do we effect change with our health insurer, if we are suddenly left holding the bag for hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses? Grovel? Hold a bake sale?

This is a big, big topic, and there are myriad issues. But there are also 47 million Americans without any form of health insurance. That’s more than the populations of the New England states, plus the states of New York, New Jersey and Maryland, combined. And there are tens of millions more just a paycheck away from disaster.

When will we stop this bizarre screeching, this false and deliberately obfuscated debate over public versus private administration, and get down to the business of caring for our fellow Americans, simply because they are our fellow Americans?

Is this really a philosophical, “don’t tread on me” issue, or is it nothing more than “I’ve got mine, you don’t, and the hell with you?”

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newman-op.jpgPerry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe.