John Edwards and universal health care
By Michael M. Bates
Taking a much needed break from primping, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards launched his 2008 presidential bid recently. A campaign cornerstone is the promise of universal health care.
The emphasis here is on the word promise. Although he's had literally years to work out the details, Edwards has few specifics, if any, that he wishes to disclose.
During a recent blog session on the liberal Daily Kos website, the Democrat said:
"I believe we need a universal health care system where ALL Americans have health care coverage. I'm working on a plan right now for universal healthcare, and if you have ideas I would love to hear them."
Hold it. I thought he was the guy with the ideas. Maybe not, at least when it comes to the tar baby (if you'll pardon the expression) of universal health care.
Under Canada's Medicare, as it's called, there are no user fees for medical services. Everything is paid for with tax dollars. Moreover, it's against the law to privately pay for major services. So almost everyone has to stand in line.
The Fraser Institute, an independent public policy organization there, has done extensive research on the Canadian system. It's concluded that although the country spends more on health care than almost every other developed nation, Canadian citizens endure long waiting times to be treated and inferior access to both medical technology and physicians.
In October, the Fraser Institute turned out its sixteenth annual waiting list survey. The 2006 findings are dismal enough to make even Mr. Edwards' well coiffed hair stand on end.
The median waiting time between referral by a general practitioner and treatment for general surgery patients was over ten weeks. For gynecology it was 14 weeks and for ophthalmology it's 27 weeks. If you're an orthopedic surgery patient, you've got plenty of time to think about your upcoming procedure, more than 40 weeks. Radiation oncology patients have to wait five weeks.
The Fraser Institute also reports that in terms of doctors per capita, Canada ranks 24th out of 28 industrialized countries. The country ranks 13th out of 24 countries in access to MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging), and 17th out of 23 in access to CT (computed tomography) scanners.
So it's not surprising to learn that Canadians cross the border to cities such as Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland, where they can receive much more timely treatment. Some physicians and hospitals up north refer their patients to the United States. Treatment isn't "free," but it's readily available.
Last year CBS News reported an Associated Press story about a letter sent to a New Brunswick heart patient needing an electrocardiogram. The appointment wouldn't be for another three months and the letter ended: "If the person named on this computer-generated letter is deceased, please accept our sincere apologies."
Other countries offering universal health care share many of the same problems Canada has. In November, a 52-year-old Australian was told his triple bypass heart surgery must be cancelled for the fourth time because of a lack of beds. The same month, an English cancer patient complained about a hospital canceling his appointment 48 times over 14 months.
The bright, shiny promise of universal health care inevitably tarnishes upon sober examination. Since it's considered free, it's over utilized. The results include long lines, overworked medical personnel, limits on available procedures, lagging technology and equipment, and government bureaucrats deciding which patients are treated and in what manner.
Contrary to what we hear, there is no such thing as a right to health care. Believing that there is requires accepting the notion that individuals can force doctors or taxpayers or someone else to do their bidding. As economist Walter Williams astutely observed, "a right is something that exists simultaneously among people and imposes no obligation on another."
Making health care affordable for as many people as possible is a desirable goal. Expanding socialized medicine, however, whether it's characterized as universal health care or single-payer health care or mandatory health insurance or something else isn't the route to take.
That's why politicians like John Edwards tout such programs, but don't supply details. It's because that's where the devil is.
This Michael M. Bates appeared in the January 4, 2007 Reporter Newspapers.