Dallas, TX –
I recently had surgery to correct a painful cervical disc disease, the worst illness I've had in my 46 years. Contrary to what you've been hearing lately, the care was excellent and cost me very little even though I needed MRIs, CT scans, physical therapy, pain medication, and neurosurgery.
Why so lucky? I married a nurse at our county hospital, where her insurance covered almost everything 100% if I used Parkland Hospital or UT Southwestern Medical School, one of the best in the world. Of course I married for love--she was my high-school sweetheart--but her coverage has saved me a small fortune during our wedded bliss.
Even in America's free market, I used what amounts to a socialist medical system every step of the way: a county employee, federally funded to nurse patients with HIV, allowed her husband to consult a neurosurgeon at a state medical school, who then operated in a hospital built by local taxes. Without this government-funded care, I would have paid thousands more in the private sector.
The good news is that around 30% of insured Americans share my good luck: police, firefighters, teachers, Medicare recipients, government employees and all 535 members of Congress have government plans negotiated at very low cost. The bad news is that the rest are treated like "suckers" by the big insurance and drug companies, milked for many times the cost of similar care. And 50 million are left uninsured. We do have the best medical schools, doctors, nurses and equipment, but when it comes to management and distribution, America is like a talented football team without a coach.
Today, the insurance companies and HMOs have become more bureaucratic than the government, deluging doctors and patients with paperwork and distorted decisions. Rising costs prompted bastions of capitalism, like Wal-Mart's Lee Scott and Safeway's Steve Byrd, to advocate universal care. No system can eliminate all bureaucracy, but we can offer quality care, at lower cost and with better organization than the current quagmire.
The path to universal care in America won't be a straight line. One solution would raise the Medicare tax and gradually bring everyone into a parallel system, forcing providers to negotiate a lower price with the government. Private insurance could still bid on optional services as they do in Germany and Australia.
Transforming our medical system is just as important now as the Interstate Highways were in the 1950s or Homeland Security after 9/11. It's more than a sentimental moral issue it's economic survival. Problems like crime, fire and war are universal, so we pay the government to control them. Disease and death affect all of us, so we need a universal health system.
Tom Rodgers is a biomedical engineer and writer living in Arlington.
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