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Obama or Romney: Who Will Address Today's Healthcare Problems?


If we do not start demanding real solutions from our candidates … we will not be able to avoid an eventual government takeover of the healthcare industry.

Now that flags have been waived, the confetti has been … (not sure there is a verb for confetti) and the two party convention halls have grown quiet, it is time to refocus on the major issue facing the healthcare industry - an affordable healthcare plan for everyone. The President’s plan under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) calls for universal coverage through an “individual mandate.” People with no insurance must purchase it. Insurance companies may not deny coverage on a “newly discovered policy defense,” after the beneficiary falls ill.

The Republican plan seems to involve balancing the budget through some form of voucher system, which would reduce the government’s obligation to pay for Medicare and Medicaid. It is unclear, however, if the Republican plan intends to addresses the problems created by the masses of uninsured, or protect those who thought they were insured, until they needed benefits. This is simply a problem too great to ignore.

Any capitalistic free market is supposed to act according to the laws of supply and demand, which should hold down costs, and increase efficiency. This is the heart of conservative ideology. But American healthcare is no more capitalistic than China’s economy is purely communistic. What we have is a mixture of social programs and free enterprise. While this works well in many cases, in the healthcare context, the laws of supply and demand get out of balance. This is because of the unique health-related behavior of three primary groups.

In the first group, are those whose very intense efforts affect market availability, cost, and utilization. This group includes both the supply side - doctors, hospitals - and the demand side, those who must purchase services - employers, individuals, and insurers. A second group consists of the consuming public, who are not in the market, and feel the goings on in the market do not matter to them. Then, the third group is comprised of those consumers who thought they were in the second group, and therefore did not choose to be in the market. Instead, members of this group were thrust into the market – either by unhappy (illness) or happy (a new baby) circumstance - with no ability to pay for their needs and no advance thought to what they might do I when the bill comes due. Obviously, this is going to create a problem (and a national embarrassment) if Americans are allowed to die from lack of life-saving care.

What can’t happen usually won’t, but what we did in response to the “uninsured” problem is nothing short of absurd. Think of a Rubik’s Cube. The problem facing you is that one of the colored squares doesn’t fit. Rather than make the problem go away, you could simply turn the problem to make it face someone else. This is exactly what the government did with the unfunded mandate, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), in which hospitals with emergency rooms cannot turn away patients suffering from an "emergency medical condition" (42 U.S.C. 1395dd).. This gift to the masses might have been defensible in the early and middle years of Medicare and Medicaid. During the halcyon days of fee-for-service and reasonable hospital reimbursement rates, it seemed not too much to ask those making a fortune from government programs to pitch in. The problem came from the “dog pile” which followed.

Once everyone figured out the government would not let us die from lack of care, there was no need to plan for that contingency. A mass migration of sorts occurred in which it was suddenly safe to be in the second or even third group of Americans who made no plan whatsoever to pay for illness. Economically, this has been devastating. Hospitals struggle to meet obligations, by raising the sticker price on everyone, which leads insurance companies to engage in post-claims underwriting (wait until an insured needs coverage, then find a flaw in the application to justify denial of coverage.) We are left with a non-functioning system described in hyperbole, as a “war of all-against-all,” in which “[i]nsurers cheat patients and doctors; patients cheat doctors and insurers; doctors cheat insurers and patients; and all cheat the federal governments." See, Bartlett, Donald; Steele, James, "Critical Condition– How Health Care in America Became Big Business and Bad Medicine," New York: Doubleday (2004)

If we do not start demanding real solutions from our candidates to the problems created by EMTALA and the masses of uninsured, it seems clear we will not be able to avoid an eventual government takeover of the healthcare industry. This is because currently, there is nothing motivating people to take care of themselves. In fact, those who try to take care of their own needs, are often thrown back into the pile of uninsured, because they failed to disclose a sore throat, 10 years before a diagnosis of cancer.

This is a crisis of financing which transcends politics and traditional conservative and liberal ideology. This is our problem. Everyone needs care, and no one wants care delivered with the same enthusiasm as government employees at a department of motor vehicles. The best thing you can do is become active in your state’s medical association.

No matter who you vote for in November, find out what your association is doing, and how you can help ensure the survival of your industry.

Find out more about Martin Merritt and our other Practice Notes bloggers.

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