After an intense summer of legislative drama, Congress has once again failed to bring about meaningful change to our health care system. But one thing is for certain: our health-care crisis continues to worsen, with no end in sight.
With so many ideas flying around, politicians from both parties have asked, “Wouldn’t it be better to let the free market take care of the system?” The answer should be a resounding “NO”.
Health care spending has skyrocketed in the past decade. Everyone knows this. More ominous is the fact that this unraveling of the system defied any attempts by the free market to control it. The fact of the matter is standard free market principles are difficult to apply to health care. This is not a typical supply-and-demand scenario. For example, as health insurance rates increased, many families predictably opted to purchase lower cost insurance with a higher deductible. But while this may save them money for the moment, it also leaves them vulnerable to high costs and unexpected medical emergencies. In other words, they are one illness away from bankruptcy. This system is hardly sustainable.
At the same time, our system is vastly inefficient. Most avenues of health care must first pass through an insurance company, and the very presence of this company adds so much more to the costs of health care, either through administrative costs or by the very fact that it’s a for-profit business. This patchwork of private companies is ill-equipped to handle the ever-increasing burden of health care, which is expected to consume more than 20% of our GDP by 2018, and we remain one of the few remaining industrialized nations that have not adopted a single-payer system.
Any consumer-directed, market-driven system would have to take into account that the overwhelming majority of health care costs is spent on major operations, such as chemotherapy or heart surgery, that are performed not by choice, but because they will save a life. It would be unfair, if not outrageous, to force people to pay for these expenses on their own, without help, and yet this is exactly what happens every day for those who are uninsured or underinsured. While the cost of care continues to go up, mainly due to advances in medical technology, there is no reason to expect that these costs can be reined in using simple free-market solutions. If the cost of soda increases, I can simply stop buying soda. But if I’m a diabetic and the cost of my insulin goes up, can you really expect me to stop using insulin?
Many critics of reform point out that our current system protects the freedom to choose your own doctor and your own health insurance plan, but this freedom does little good if in a few years you can’t even afford such a plan in the first place. Instead, the real “freedom” of choice is only enjoyed by those who can afford it and is in fact an illusion for the majority of us.
Health care is not a commodity. In the same way that you cannot allow the whims of the market to decide the fate of a person’s life, we cannot allow our health care system sink further into privatization. Although some may argue that health care is not a right guaranteed by the government, many countries from Costa Rica to Taiwan to Canada have recognized that health care is a basic human necessity and provide their citizens with some form of universal coverage. And the same way that our government provides us with schools, fire stations, police, and public transit, we must ensure that every one of our citizens is protected by a fair and affordable health care system. Right now, we could not be farther from that goal. We must act, and we must act now.