A Private Obsession


American health care is unique among advanced countries in its heavy reliance on the private sector. It's also uniquely inefficient. We spend far more per person on health care than any other country, yet many Americans lack health insurance and don't receive essential care.

This week yet another report emphasized just how bad a job the American system does at providing basic health care. A study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that 20 million working Americans are uninsured; in Texas, which has the worst record, more than 30 percent of the adults under 65 have no insurance.

And lack of insurance leads to inadequate medical attention. Over a 12-month period, 41 percent of the uninsured were unable to see a doctor when needed because of cost; 56 percent had no personal doctor or health care provider.

Our system is desperately in need of reform. Yet it will be very hard to get useful reform, for two reasons: vested interests and ideology.

I'll have a lot more to say about vested interests and health care in future columns, but let me emphasize one key point: a lot of big companies are essentially in the business of wasting health care resources.

The most striking inefficiency of our health system is our huge medical bureaucracy, which is mainly occupied in trying to get someone else to pay the bills. A good guess is that two million to three million Americans are employed by insurers and health care providers not to deliver health care, but to pass the buck to other people.

Yet any effort to reduce this waste would hurt powerful, well-organized interests, which have already demonstrated their power to block reform. Remember the "Harry and Louise" ads that doomed the Clinton health plan? The actors may have seemed like regular folks, but the ads were paid for by the Health Insurance Association of America, an industry lobbying group that liked the health care system just the way it was.

But vested interests aren't the only obstacle to fixing our health care system. We also have a big problem with ideology.

You see, America is ruled by conservatives, and they have a private obsession: they believe that more privatization, not less, is always the answer. And their faith persists even when the evidence clearly points to a private sector gone bad.

I could cite many examples of this obsession at work. But a particularly good illustration of ideology-induced obliviousness is the 2004 Economic Report of the President, which devotes a whole chapter to health care that can be read as a sort of conservative manifesto on the subject.

The main message of that report is that U.S. health care is doing just fine. Never mind the huge expense, the low life expectancy, the high infant mortality; it's a market-based system, so it must be good.

The report even takes a Panglossian view of uninsured Americans - one that is completely at odds with the grim statistics I cited above - suggesting that "many of them may remain uninsured as a matter of choice," perhaps because "they are young and healthy and do not see the need for insurance."

The president's economists had only one criticism of the system: insurance is too comprehensive, which encourages people to consume too much health care. As they see it, insurance covers too large a percentage of medical costs. The answer to this problem is the creation of, you guessed it, private accounts, which have now superseded tax cuts as the answer to all problems.

Indeed, a new paper by Martin Feldstein of Harvard, which clearly reflects the administration's views, suggests that Social Security privatization and health savings accounts - tax shelters designed to encourage people to pay medical costs out of their own pockets - are only the beginning. "Investment-based personal accounts," he says, are the way to go for unemployment insurance and Medicare, too.

O.K., let's not turn this into a Bush-bashing session. President Bush didn't cause the crisis in American health care. His health care policies have made things only a little bit worse.

The point, instead, is that even though all the evidence suggests that we would be much better off under a system of universal coverage, any such move will be fiercely opposed, on principle, by conservatives who want us to move in the opposite direction.

And reform will also be opposed by powerful vested interests - my next subject in this series.

Originally published in The New York Times, 4.29.05