Some time ago our editorial board met with a group of health care providers to talk about the spiraling costs of health care in general and the costs of drugs and health insurance in particular.
At one point during the discussion, I had the temerity to suggest that if the United States had a national health care system we probably wouldn't be having the discussion. And I mentioned Canada's system as a possible model.
This caused one of the participants to erupt. "If we had a national health insurance system like Canada's," he bellowed, "Bill Clinton wouldn't be alive today."
He was referring, I assumed, to Clinton having recently undergone successful emergency heart bypass surgery. The implication was that had Clinton been north of the border when he was diagnosed in need of open heart surgery, he would most likely have expired while languishing on a waiting list for his procedure.
What nonsense, especially from someone who should know better. You might expect to get that kind of reaction from a Wall Street Journal editorialist or an insurance executive. But from someone immersed in the health care industry?
But it should not be all that surprising when you consider how successful the insurance and pharmaceutical industries and, for a long time, the physicians union, the American Medical Association, have been in preventing one spineless Congress after another from doing what just about every other industrialized nation has long since done, with impressive results.
And it has been a long time in not coming.
In his excellent biography of Harry Truman, David McCullough notes that a national health care plan was one of Truman's major post-war objectives. Ten presidents later we are no nearer that goal, mainly because of Truman's successors only Clinton made it a priority, and he made the mistake of putting his wife in charge of the effort. It probably would have failed in any event, given the opposition in Congress and the advertising campaign by the insurance industry that set a record for fraudulence that held until the Swift Boat Liars for Bush came along. But Congress and a good part of the general population weren't comfortable with a first lady who did anything other than give tea parties and write silly books about talking dogs.
It's been said that the United States has the best health care that money can buy, and that's true up to a point; the point being where the poor and much of the middle class can't afford it.
As Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times, pointed out recently, in 2002 we spent $5,267 per person on health care. Canada spent $2,931, Germany spent $2,817 and Great Britain spent $2,160. But, Krugman added, the United States has a lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality rate than any of those countries.
So what does it take for Americans and their elected representatives to get past the socialized-medicine scare talk and come to grips with reality? Maybe the fact that employers nationwide are charging their employees more and providing them with less in health insurance coverage. Maybe it's the fact that more and more of America's fixed-income elderly are faced with having to chose between food and medicine, when they need both to survive.
Several years ago, a representative of a major pharmaceutical company told me, in an uncommon moment of candor, what a resident of Great Britain would pay for 100 of his company's patented prescription anti-depressant pills, and what someone in the United States would pay for the same prescription.
I knew the Briton would pay less, but I didn't expect to hear him say it would be one quarter of what we pay here.
So why doesn't your company charge them what it charges us? I asked him.
He laughed. Because their government won't let us, he said.
Imagine that. A government that puts its citizens' interests ahead of corporate interests. What strange priorities those foreigners have.
Rossie is associate editor of the Press & Sun-Bulletin.
© 2005 Binghamton
Press & Sun-Bulletin