Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Health Insurance
Clinton Health Plan and its replacements.

Perfect, the Enemy of Good

One problem with health insurance reform debate is there's so little mention of health. After all, without illness, the need for health insurance would vanish. So here, let's begin with the so-called statin drugs, the first really effective treatment for high blood cholesterol. Statin drugs do far more good than merely lowering cholesterol levels. Heart attacks, the commonest cause of death, declined so rapidly in the past ten years it's hard to say how low mortality rates will eventually go. Deaths from strokes, also caused by hardened arteries, declined almost as much and that's the whole purpose of treating cholesterol. Statins didn't do it all; it is about half due to prevention, where smoking cessation, aspirin, and other drugs are effective, and a half due to rescue treatments, like angioplasty, pacemakers and by-pass operations. But that's why the conquest of arteriosclerosis seems so assured; it doesn't all depend on a single drug which might later have unexpected disadvantages. Eventually, we can reasonably hope for prevention to displace rescue treatment, so maintaining the conquest of this disease should also get cheaper. This is already the most dramatic medical advance since the invention of antibiotics. No sooner do we say the mortality rate from heart attacks is down by 30% than we sense it may be down by 50%. Since it takes several decades to accumulate that rust in your arteries, the death rate from heart attacks may decline for thirty years, as we prevent rust accumulation from beginning in high school. Safety is still a question, but a small one. Right now, elated doctors whisper that perhaps arteriosclerosis has been conquered, don't say it too loud because that's bad luck.

{top quote}
Health insurance to cover absolutely everyone is an attractive goal but may be an unachievable digression from achievable reforms. {bottom quote}
Dr. Fisher

Sixty years ago medical doctrine was, only two research challenges remain: arteriosclerosis and cancer. That's a little exaggerated, since HIV, schizophrenia, Alzheimers Disease, and nuclear explosions would bother us badly even after cancer is cured. But it's certainly high time to redirect the healthcare reform debates to include the massive economic changes going on, independent of any insurance reform. Let's repeat, for emphasis, we don't need universal health insurance if people don't get sick. Or put the same idea in more measured tones: Americans will almost certainly become more resistant to taxation for health insurance as this longevity extension sinks in. It may not matter that Canada, Britain, France, and Zanzibar have universal health insurance plans. Americans younger than 35 are already past the political point where the need for health insurance is self-evident to them. The conquest of arteriosclerosis could easily push that resistance level to age 50 because people form their opinions from what they see happening to friends and relatives. Employers wrap their opinion around what they see happening to their employees.

If, then, it can be feared that employers might eventually rebel at sustaining major health insurance costs for employees whose lack of fatal disease is obvious from their personnel records, the present system of employer-based health insurance coverage could crumble. At the very least, it will draw employers to proposals for individual health insurance individually selected and owned, portable between jobs. At that point, another group will rise in rebellion. The employees themselves will resolutely oppose mandatory spending for health insurance they think they don't need. Insurance against the cost of obstetrics and baby shots, yes. After retirement, Medicare will take care of the ills of old age. Costs will progressively concentrate around the first year of life and the last year of life -- ninety years apart. Everything in the middle will depend on how much risk people are willing to take, and that depends in turn on how much the insurance costs. The fate of the whole health insurance industry depends on reducing claims costs, but their track record on that is quite poor. Consequently, their future attempts will likely be quite drastic, making insurance even more unpopular. For all these reasons, it is going to be very difficult to persuade the country to accept any reform that includes the word "mandatory". People may be restless with present forms of health insurance, but it's hard to imagine them switching to an alternative from which there is no retreat.

There's a great deal more to say, but let's veer to new unwelcome consideration. For sixty years, since the administration of President Harry S. Truman, we have embroiled ourselves in a struggle to achieve health insurance for everybody. Many quite practical solutions to smaller problems have meanwhile been swept aside, as either irrelevant to the Main Thing, or hindrances which reduce the urgency of it. Somehow it has always seemed worth concentrating on the big reform of universal coverage while smaller conflicting improvements are forced to wait for the dust to settle. But the problem of 12 million or more illegal immigrant workers begins to demand solutions which have nothing to do with health insurance and may make universal coverage impractical for decades to come. Illegal immigrants appearing in the accident rooms of border states were a manageable problem until their numbers grew so substantially. Since we obviously cannot extend free coverage to the whole undeveloped world, no proposal for universal health insurance is viable without a workable feature about non-citizens. Mix in the local politics of the border states and it is entirely possible that the exigencies of overall immigration will prove greater than the need to have a uniform health insurance system. The longer it takes to face this unpleasant reality, the longer we will delay small, non-universal, solutions to health care reform.

Although it is a digression from healthcare, it seems important to make a convincing case that immigration is a serious issue. The terrifying fact is, we have grown to need immigrant labor. The experience we gained in centuries of dealing with new waves of immigrants is not much help in coping with the new phenomenon of transient laborers in massive numbers. Historically, we struggled with bilingual education and crime ghettos and mostly learned how to deal with that. Now, we need to fear the example of the rich Arab countries where transient foreigners greatly outnumber the citizens. The most extreme result is found in Kuwait, where hardly a single Kuwaiti citizen in gainfully employed; the rich citizens are helpless parasites on the labor of the illegals. Try proposing universal health care in Kuwait and see how much attention it gets. At the risk of being called an insensitive person, I'm afraid that being the richest country in the world may be exactly the reason why we can't do what Europe has done with health care. Meanwhile, this distraction keeps us from doing what we really might be doing.

* * *

In its thirty-year existence, cable television's C-span diligently filmed mountainous archives of mostly boring speeches, hearings and contemporary analyses of our government at work. The true genius of this expensive private philanthropy emerges with hindsight, as old firms which hardly anyone watched at the time can sometimes re-emerge to display what now everyone needs to know. The present case in point is to listen again to the soaring, convincing rhetoric of Bill Clinton's introduction of his Health Plan to Congress in 1993, bringing America to its feet with a realization that something was terribly broken about American health care. And then to be present in the next hour to the fumbling, circular and unconvincing solutions offered by Hillary Clinton before the sly, elaborately courteous, but pointedly probing questions of the Congress in hearings. She improved considerably with practice, but it is not lost on the viewer that she reverted to emphasizing the seriousness of the problem, rather than the aptness of the solution. The Plan was going to spend some money at first, save a lot of money later, but not harm the quality of care in the process. Just how it was going to do that was mainly supported by a passionate wish to do it because it simply must be done. Total, universal, and hence mandatory, insurance coverage would, must, shall cut costs while it extended decent care to all. All other solutions had been exhaustively examined. Without total universal mandatory insurance coverage, nothing would work.

However, if one problem would make this solution unworkable, it is not necessary to describe twenty others. There are billions of people around the world who do not have American health insurance; obviously, we do not expect to extend it to all of them. It would seem that we are talking about extending, giving, or mandating American health insurance to those who are within our borders. Assuming we ignore the handful of foreign tourists who pass through, that mainly means extending coverage to immigrants and those without coverage for brief periods, mainly new employment entrants and those temporarily between jobs. Switching from employer group policies to individually owned and selected policies would solve half the problem, but at the cost of extending income tax deductibility to everyone, hence eventually eliminating it for everyone. It would take a lot of persuading to convince everyone to give up that tax deduction, particularly when it is scarcely mentioned in the persuasion. But then let's look at the other half of the problem; we have 12 or more million illegal immigrants in the country, is someone proposing we mandate health insurance for them? What about next year, when several million immigrants go back home and are replaced by several million different ones? When you dig into it, this sounds less and less like a health insurance problem, and more like an immigration problem. Would it not seem wise to delay the goal of universal coverage and solve other health problems while other people with other ideas solve the immigration issue?

And then, the issue of raising taxes by eliminating the tax deduction for health insurance. A considerable portion of this revenue source would be absorbed by subsidizing the people who don't currently get the deduction, which not only includes the uninsured but those who currently pay for their own health insurance, mainly the self-employed population. The residual federal revenue gain from the net effect of all this disruption would probably fall short of its promises, but even if it produced mountains of federal revenue, would it reduce the cost of medical care? It's pretty hard to see how shifting money from one set of pockets to another would have any effect whatever on the cost of running a hospital or doctor's office or pharmacy.

Whenever the Clintons or their spokesmen fumbled a little, it was possible to believe they did not fully understand the irrelevance of their solution to the problem they denounced. And whenever the Clintons appeared glib and polished, it was possible to believe this was all some sort of ruse. They couldn't win, and others seemed to grasp this before they did. Meanwhile, potentially important progress in the improvement of medical care was totally blocked by insisting that every proposal must meet the test of universal coverage. Tort reform, increasing the share of patient cost responsibility, permitting the interstate sale of health insurance, and -- stop right there, how will that ensure the uninsured? By forcing every proposal, large and small, to be measured by whether it led necessarily to universal coverage, the debaters "framed the argument". Fifteen years later, we can see the country did get by without meeting that benchmark, and we also see how many useful improvements were pushed aside for failing to meet the standard of an impossible goal made possible.

Originally published: Monday, August 20, 2007; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019