If health reform important, let’s understand the plan

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 16, 2009

The proposition: There’s room to improve how eligibility for medical services is determined, how medical institutions are organized and how medical services are paid for in America.

That said, it’s as if we’re all on the set of “Let’s Make A Deal.” Monty Hall is demanding we choose door number one, door number two or door number three. No one has any idea as to which hides pretty much the same thing we have now, which holds a bonanza and which contains a goat chewing on a carrot.

Suffice it to say it shouldn’t be this way.

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Suffice it to say the president, Congress and the media should be putting forth, in plain language, ideas and options.

But what we’re getting is shouting, pleading, assurances, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Some support anything the president wants, because they like the president. Some are against any change because they don’t like the president. That’s pretty dumb.

Problem is, there are few public discussions that have contained any substantive information about what might work or what clearly wouldn’t. Instead, members of the studio audience are all shouting different door numbers — even though they have no better idea than anyone else which masks the zonk.

Here’s a snapshot of where we are in Mississippi:

• We have 1.8 doctors per 1,000 people, which puts us slightly ahead of the world average of 1.7 and well below the national average of 3.

• In 2004, $14.6 billion was spent on health matters, an amount about five times the state’s General Fund spending that year.

• The medical bill for each of us that year was, on average, $5,059, compared to a national average of $5,283.

• In 2007, 44.8 percent of us had private health insurance plans through our employers, 4.5 percent purchased policies on the open market, 19.1 percent of us were enrolled in Medicaid, 10.4 percent of us were enrolled in Medicare, 1.4 percent of us had other public insurance and 19.8 percent of us had no health insurance.

• Among the uninsured, 20 percent were children and the rest were adults 19 to 64.

More statistics, enough to sink a ship, are at the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Web site, http://www.statehealthfacts.org.

Of course, many say numbers aren’t the issue. They invoke the “proper role of government” argument. They believe the marketplace will serve consumers’ health needs the same way grocery stores serve our food needs.

The response is to look at the statistics and observe, “Hey look, a third of Mississippians (Medicaid plus Medicare plus ‘others’) are already in “socialized” health programs where the government makes the rules and pays the bills. Further, all private health policies must meet state and federal criteria, and almost all clinics, nursing homes, hospitals and doctors must operate under a labyrinth of state and federal laws and regulations. It’s a bit late to bring up “free enterprise.”

If fully socialized, every American would share in the health-care expenses of every other American in a “proportionalized” way, with rich paying larger shares than the poor. We’d all get what we need, not “free” but through indirect payments administered by the U.S. Treasury under rules set by Congress. And, in keeping with national tradition, we would expect Congress to limit costs while maintaining full availability of every medical service to each of us.

Some are honest enough to admit there will never be a perfect set of objective rules — treating everybody the same — that will generate an ideal result in a field as subjective as medicine. Patients are not generated by cookie-cutters, you know.

There is no way to move from today’s hodgepodge of availability and payment systems into a more equitable, more efficient arrangement without turmoil. There are many, many issues such as taxpayer funding for abortions, where any notion of compromise seems well beyond reach.

And so we come to this: The hardest thing about health-care reform might be getting a plan on paper that people can understand, getting the media to offer neutral, informational stories instead of “he said, she said” coverage and then having members of Congress stand up and vote based on a system they believe takes the best objective steps toward achieving defined goals.

As the president says, this is important stuff. If so, it’s important to get it right. Whatever it takes, before a vote is taken people need to know what any health-reform legislation will do.

Let’s not take the Monty Hall approach.