Skyrocketing health care costs: The tail that's wagging the dog

The U.S. government pays more, per person, for health care than any government in the world, including Canada, Great Britain, and other countries that have socialized, cradle-to-grave programs.

While the U.S. may have the best hospitals and physicians — for those who can afford to access them — analysts give the resultant health care only a mediocre grade population-wide.

A recent report by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services projects that by the end of this decade — just four years from now — health care will amount to $1 of every $5 spent in this country.

Health insurance costs are expected to jump another 6.4 percent during the period. By 2016, health care spending in the U.S. is projected at $4 trillion, double today's $2 trillion.

A representative of the Physicians for National Health Care recently described it as a system that “is sick and dying — we've got the highest mortality rate of any country and we're spending twice as much money for health care.”

President Bush has been flying around the country to ballyhoo his proposal that would extend health care coverage to millions who are uninsured or underinsured.

The plan would make employee health insurance taxable to the worker, but would allow an offsetting tax deduction, which the president said, would let individuals, “not insurance companies or government,” make health care decisions.

Critics say the tax benefit would not be sufficient to allow many to purchase insurance and that the plan would, in fact, worsen the health care crisis by diminishing benefits available under the present system.

(There is no little irony that a president who has put American military personnel in harm's way in Iraq, resulting in thousands of horribly maimed, injured, and traumatized servicemen and women, has proposed a federal budget that would slash health care expenditures for veterans through 2012, then freeze them — this at a time when even more injured Iraq/Afghanistan war vets will be needing those services.)

Medicare, the government's biggest long-term health care effort, has taken a lot of licks from critics over the years, but in reality the medical portion of the program is better managed and more cost-effective than many private insurance options. Its annual overhead is only about 4 percent, compared to 8 percent to 15 percent for the private insurance industry.

Cost effectiveness, alas, is not the case for the new Medicare prescription drug program, which the Bush administration turned over to private insurers and then tossed the pharmaceutical industry a $7.4 billion excess profits lagniappe by preventing Medicare from negotiating drug prices with manufacturers. (Just a coincidence, of course, that in the first quarter of 2006 manufacturers of 193 brand name prescription drugs most often used by Medicare recipients raised their wholesale prices an average 3.9 percent — more than triple the inflation rate.)

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., has labeled the Medicare prescription drug program “a rip-off by the pharmaceutical industry.” Amen and amen.

Some of the 2008 presidential aspirants, led by John Edwards and Barack Obama, are already making health care reform a major campaign talking point. And deservedly so.

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