Diagnosing America's Woes Greater than Just Healthcare

October 7, 2013

Political columnist George F. Will discusses America's myriad problems and their solutions, including our excessive healthcare spending and consumption.

In a speech peppered with both political and baseball history, political columnist and commentator George F. Will promised to "depress … at great length" attendees of the Medical Group Management Association Annual Conference in San Diego.

He delivered by discussing a growing "welfare state," where Americans rely more and more on a government that is "borrowing from the future to finance its current consumption."

Covering issues from the growing national debt to an economy that is struggling to recover to our troubled education system to the litigious society we've become due to a lack of personal responsibility, Will did spend a portion of his speech addressing the current
state of medicine and healthcare.

"[Medicine] is one-sixth of the American economy … and you people are five-sixths of the trouble in Washington right now," Will told MGMA13 attendees.

Discussing provisions of the Affordable Care Act, Will described two new terms in the American lexicon: 49ers and 29ers.  The former are businesses with 49 employees who won't hire the 50th worker to avoid the forthcoming employer mandate that will require businesses with 50 or more employees to provide health insurance. The latter: businesses that limit employees to 29 hours a week, because working 30 hours will make them full-time employees, again activating an employer requirement for coverage.

"We are reaching a tipping point … where a majority of Americans are related to the government either as employees or as its clients," he said, adding that we are reaching a "death spiral."

Thanks to what he called "competent medicine," Americans are living longer; placing a greater burden on the Social Security and Medicare programs that struggle to fund the rapidly growing cost of coverage. Will suggested that increasing the American retirement age to 67 years old would help, but added that he thinks this is "politically impossible."

He cited a study where the average couple about to reach the age of 65 has paid around $109,000 into Medicare, but will eventually take out $324,000 to cover the cost of their medical care. Furthermore, Medicare recipients pay only 12 cents of every healthcare dollar to fund their care; the other 88 cents comes from other sources, which includes the government.

Will said Americans have a "buffet attitude to healthcare," pointing out that since they've paid up front, they feel free to consume as much healthcare services as they want. He referenced a suggestion made by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the 2008 presidential election to give Americans "more skin in the game," by offering them large tax incentives to buy their own health insurance across state lines, just like we currently do with auto insurance.

He then asked if the audience could imagine that instead of providing us with health insurance, the government decided to buy our groceries.  The result? Likely a store without prices as most Americans do not question the cost of their care, nor can their providers give such an answer, Will said.

But the silver lining in his speech was that throughout history, with examples ranging from Eli Whitney to Alexander Graham Bell and even Ray Kroc, Americans have displayed ingenuity and "defined excellence on their own." And, from healthcare to the ailing economy, Will says, it is these key characteristics that will get us out of our current predicament. Even as Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., remain dead set against compromise.

"That's why the arguments are intense today - the stakes are so high," Will said. "Gridlock is not an American problem, it's an American achievement … But things are going to get better."

"What [Americans] can do for this country is dedicate a spacious portion of their life where the government is not responsible," Will advised. "…Don't be depressed, be of good cheer. We have thrifty, industrious, wonderful people [in America]."