Time to socialize medicine.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Nov. 8 2006 4:33 PM

Time To Socialize Medicine

How Democrats can make themselves useful.

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In theory, when insurance companies tinker with co-payments and deductibles, they put the brakes on health-care costs by pressuring consumers to avoid frivolous visits to the doctor. In practice, frivolous visits to the doctor are comparatively rare and confined to a few hypochondriacs and hysterics. Going to the doctor is, after all, a fairly unpleasant experience. When people are pressured to avoid seeing the doctor, what happens is that their health suffers. This isn't rocket science.

Krugman and Wells (whose essay ought to be read, I'm not kidding, by every American) displayed a chart telling the familiar tale that the United States spends about twice what Canada, France, and the United Kingdom do on health care (all three have socialized medicine) yet ranks lower than these countries on life expectancy and higher on infant mortality. There's no question that the United States practices the most advanced medicine in the world, but that doesn't translate into a healthier population. The problem isn't the science; it's the boring stuff, like the size and variety of the cohort that's insured, and the availability of computerized medical records, and the price tag for a visit to the doctor. Writ large, it's the inability of the health care system to benefit economically from improving the long-term health of its customers. This is a job private industry can't do.

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It's a given that the government will be forced to take over health care. Just about every doctor I've ever questioned on the subject has said so, even though one consequence may be that doctors will lose income by becoming salaried employees rather than fee-for-service entrepreneurs (a system widely agreed to have increased the number of unnecessary and sometimes dangerous medical procedures). Will the cost be prohibitive? Obviously if more people have access to medical care, that will push costs up. At the same time, though, eliminating the ever-more-elaborate financial game-playing between insurers, doctors, and patients would save an enormous amount of money, and so would eliminating costly medical care required when a patient has failed to receive preventive care, which is comparatively inexpensive. Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veterans Administration all have their faults, but they all manage to deliver health care more cheaply than private insurance, and the VA, which actually employs doctors and owns hospitals, is widely understood by experts to provide better care than private hospitals do. Krugman and Wells note that when Taiwan switched to a single-payer system in 1995, overall health-care costs went down:

[T]he percentage of the population with health insurance soared from 57 percent to 97 percent, yet health care costs actually grew more slowly than one would have predicted from trends before the change in system.

The practicalities of politics may shun putting socialized medicine at the center of the Democratic agenda. But the practicalities of life demand it and will soon reverse the political calculus. People are dying, and corporations are going broke. Let's get started.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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