H1N1 Vaccine a Preview of Government-Run Health Care

Published October 8, 2009

As the winter flu season approaches, many are watching the federal government’s handling of H1N1 vaccines as a preview of national, government-run health care.

The virus, also known as swine flu, is expected to afflict millions of people this fall, and the government is distributing vaccines. Shortages and delays in the vaccine’s development have resulted in the establishment of priority groups to receive first treatment.

“The 2009 H1N1 influenza virus never went away this summer, and it’s starting to cause increased disease this fall,” said Rear Admiral Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Southeastern states represent a large portion of the fall cases, attributable to school starting earlier there than in the rest of the country.

Not Complicated

Paul Howard, director of the Center for Medical Progress at the Manhattan Institute, said the swine flu vaccine is one of the few types of medical service the government can handle.

“The government can do vaccinations well or badly, depending on how it plans or funds the process, and how it encourages drug companies to participate in making the vaccine,” Howard said.

Howard noted this should be a simple process. Because the vaccine is a single product, distribution to mandated recipients and other non-mandated populations should be straightforward.

“It’s the kind of thing the government does. If it wants to hand out everyone a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it can do that. And it can do that well,” Howard said. “So we will see how it plays out. It’s so much less complicated than running a health care system.”

‘Can’t Practice Medicine’

Others remain skeptical. Irwin Stelzer, director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute, calls swine flu a “test case” and says the government is in over its head.

“After years of tabulating data on ordinary seasonal flu, the government does not know how many people will want to be vaccinated and how many would rather take their chances with the flu than with a possible reaction to the vaccine,” Stelzer said. “What does this tell us about President Obama’s plan for extending government’s role in managing our health care system? First, that government is incapable of advance preparation for a health care problem, even with ample warning.”

Ryan Ellis, tax policy director of Americans for Tax Reform in Washington, DC, believes H1N1 will expose government’s limitations.

“There’s a reason the Founding Fathers gave the government only a few things to do: It can do only a few things well,” Ellis said. “The government can blow stuff up, it can collect taxes, it can enforce contracts, protect people from harm, and even build a decent road every now and again. What it can’t do is practice medicine. They’ve screwed it up every time it’s been tried.”

Celeste Altus ([email protected]) writes from Martinez, California.