Faceoff: Liberty, justice... health care for all?

Hopefully you're among the lucky half of America that won't get seriously ill this year. Because for the other half who are dealt a stroke of bad luck by disease or injury, expenses mount quickly: The sickest percent of the population will need $150,000 of care on average in a given year. Most people can't pay these, or even more moderate, expenses out of pocket and instead rely on private insurance companies to foot the bill.

Unfortunately, millions of people (15 percent of the country) are without insurance and an estimated 42 percent more are underinsured, and risk being forced into debt by emergency medical expenses. Conversely, in every other advanced nation in the world, the government keeps all its citizens affordably insured - an admirable use of taxes if I've ever seen one.

Still, opponents of universal health care like to echo the refrain that our health care system is the best in the world. And by rights it should be - we spend the most money per capita on health care of any nation in the world, twice as much as Canada or France.

Yet the World Health Organization rates our health care system No. 37, beaten out by France (No. 1), and even Colombia at a modest No. 22. And they do it on the cheap. How can we spend so much and yet get so little for our money's worth?

For the answer, just follow the money. Universal health insurance critics like to call government programs inefficient and overly bureaucratic. Not so - Medicare spends just two percent of its funds on administration, private insurers about 15 percent. This is not to mention the billions more spent by private insurers on paperwork and litigation to deny coverage to those who need it, or the untold costs of neglecting preventative medicine in favor of forcing the uninsured to wait for a costly emergency.

And all this needless expense buys us is a maternal mortality rate worse than that of Canada, Slovakia or Serbia. Whether you feel guaranteed health care is a right or not, all evidence shows that we can't afford to go on treating it as anything less.

Liberal-bashers' favorite topic of late has been the concept of universal health coverage, which sends conservative pundits into a terrified tizzy at its mere mention.

Pundits aside, the practice of universal healthcare as it's often described is fundamentally flawed and would be extremely inefficient; therefore a negative policy for our currently debt-ridden country.

The main argument in support of universal health care is well-known and repeated by rote without considering its implications: Many countries in Europe have universal healthcare, so America can as well. The problem with that argument, however, should present itself immediately: America isn't Europe.

There are more people, different health problems and a completely different ethos with respect to individuality and personal responsibility in America that remains prohibitive to the nature of universal health care.

There are 65 million people in France. America has 300 million. The logistical differences are staggering and perhaps the most compelling argument against the analogous theory of universal healthcare.

Further complicating the problem is the bureaucracy of medicine in the socialized healthcare state. Procedures will take longer to obtain and necessary help may well be denied because of bureaucratic red tape.

While this isn't unheard of under the current system of private insurance, it is far less common; insurance companies have to make a profit by providing a service and thus have strong incentive to provide fast care. There's no such draw where the government is involved.

This segues into the extremely important issue of waste: every government agency is prone to copious waste in every field. It's part of the very nature of government. By contrast, a commercial public company has a responsibility to its stockholders to turn a profit, giving a stimulus for private health insurance companies to provide quick, efficient service to their clients.

As usual, the root of the argument is steeped in American tradition: Universal health care would be extraordinarily useful to the poor, but the poor aren't the democratic majority. The majority, the middle class on which democratic states are based, benefits more from our current system of private insurance and thus it will, and should, remain in place.

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