Beware policymakers who still believe the centuries-old practice of bloodletting is an acceptable medical procedure for treatment of a patient bleeding to death.
Once again, federal lawmakers are heading into the operating room to treat the hemorrhaging U.S. health care system. The congressional schedule is getting jammed with new patients’ bills of rights, single-payer health care plans, expansion of mental health parity legislation, and malpractice reform legislation.
Rights Still Wrong
Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Georgia) is trying to resuscitate the old Patients’ Bill of Rights Act by calling it the Patient Protection Act (PPA). Among the so-called “patient protections” is a costly mandate forcing managed care insurance plans to provide access to prescription drugs.
A second Norwood bill attempts to clarify that the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) does not protect employers with self-funded insurance plans against lawsuits stemming from denials of care initiated by the plan’s insurance company or the firm’s health plan administrator.
Senators John McCain (R-Arizona), John Edwards (D-North Carolina), and Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Representative John Dingell (D-Michigan) also are expected to enter the operating room and propose their own patients’ rights redux.
Representatives John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Jim McDermott (D-Washington) are attempting major surgery with a bill to create a national single-payer health system. Conyers, upon recently awakening from hibernation, said, “Even the people who don’t like a single-payer system, are moving to it. There’s nothing else left.”
McDermott, like Conyers, is apparently unaware of the trashing single-payer took late last year in Oregon, or that a major shift to consumer-driven health care is taking place even as they attempt to switch us all to socialized medicine. According to a bill summary, the Conyers/McDermott plan would extend the current Medicare system to all U.S. residents by increasing existing Medicare payroll taxes and adding a new payroll tax as yet undefined. Kennedy, not to be out-maneuvered, plans to introduce similar legislation.
Senators Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) and Kennedy (again), along with Representatives Jim Ramstad (R-Minnesota) and Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island), want their new bill to expand the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996. This little piece of bloodletting, called the “Senator Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2003,” would amend a 1996 law that says health plans covering mental illnesses may not establish different annual and lifetime benefits for mental illnesses than for physical illnesses.
Under the new legislation, those health plans also would be forbidden from establishing higher deductibles or co-payments for mental health benefits than for other medical conditions.
One Last Incision
Malpractice bills introduced by Kennedy and McCain would rely much more heavily on lawsuits than a competing bill by Senators John Breaux (D-Louisiana) and Bill Frist (R-Tennessee). Nevertheless, the potential for increased litigation under each of these bills could further shorten the life of many health plans and divert billions of dollars more from health care to litigation.
Our health care system is experiencing cardiac arrest. Before we can expect any improvement in its condition, the patient must be stabilized. The way to do that is not to create more stress on the system, by expanding its girth or burdening it with new regulatory demands, but to understand what’s causing the stress in the first place.
The legislative approaches described here are exceedingly stressful in that they represent unfunded and procedural mandates on a health care system already over-regulated. The U.S. health care system can take no more such stress. At best, these proposals are obstructionist measures obviously designed to pander to a special constituency; at worst, they are designed to further destabilize the private-sector health care industry, clearing the way for socialized medicine.
Give Freedom a Chance
If the U.S. health care system is to survive, lawmakers must pass the structural reforms needed to correct Medicare; expand state authority over Medicaid; define a workable malpractice system; expand access to affordable health insurance with tax credits and Medical Savings Accounts; and create a prescription drug plan that responds to consumer demand, not regulatory demand or price controls.
The long-term solution is to allow patient-consumers to stand on their own two feet, to choose and own their own health insurance–just as they choose and own their life, long-term care, retirement annuity, home, and auto insurance.
The 108th Congress already has before it the tools it needs to return the U.S. health care system to its vital self, legislation that can unleash the free market and restore freedom of choice. But the stress-inducing measures discussed here have got to go.
Conrad F. Meier is managing editor of Health Care News.