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The Health Care Debate's Red Herrings

The debate on the healthcare has been filled with red herrings. Swallowing red herrings makes people irritable and they often say things in anger without thinking them through. If we trace the red herrings to their source, we would probably find that they were created by those who have the most to gain from the failure of health care reform. However, health-care reform is too important to let it be sidetracked into pointless arguments.

One of the red herrings popped up dramatically in the President’s address to Congress. When President Obama pointed out that the Health Care Reform Bill would not provide coverage for illegal aliens, Senator Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted out “You lie.” Clearly someone had planted a red herring as the health-care bill specifically says on page 146: “Sec 246 — NO FEDERAL PAYMENT FOR UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS: Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.”

The problem with illegal immigrants arose from a truly bipartisan and humanitarian effort.  In 1986, two major pieces of legislation were passed by the Democratic Congress, approved by the Republican Senate, and signed into law by President Reagan. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act provided amnesty for 1.5 million undocumented aliens. Its purpose was to halt illegal immigration, but we now have 12 million illegal immigrant so it has apparently failed. The connection to health care came also in 1986 with the passage of the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act which ensured public access to emergency services regardless of ability to pay. Those without money or health insurance now use the emergency room as their primary healthcare provider. The cost of that is staggering, and much of the cost is eventually paid by citizens in the form of higher taxes and more expensive medical services. Illegal immigrants have become a serious problem, but it is not one that can be corrected by the health-care bill.

There are strong feelings on both sides of the abortion issue. Health care reform is too important to those on both sides to let it become a battlefield for ideological differences. The Health-care Reform Bill does not provide public funds for abortions. The bill does not mention abortion. There are those who wish to insure that public funds are not used for abortion and their wishes should be respected. There are those who think providing health care to women who are now uninsured would surely reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and they are right. There are methods of birth control acceptable to every religious faith. Certainly, providing health counseling to women, good prenatal care for expectant mothers, and excellent health care for babies are goals that everyone can share.

 Tort reform is another red herring. The malpractice system is clearly broken. Doctors are afraid to admit error for fear being sued, malpractice insurer will not pay a claim without an admission of error, and an injured patient has little recourse but to sue.  A University of Michigan1 study has shown that malpractice lawsuits could greatly be reduced if doctors would admit their errors, apologize, and compensate the patient fairly for their mistakes.  It has been estimated that litigation costs and malpractice insurance add about 1-1.5 % to total health-care costs.2 The malpractice system needs to be fixed but doing so will not substantially reduce medical costs or help the uninsured. Perhaps malpractice insurance co-ops for doctors should be considered.

 Unfortunately, the cost of health care reform is not a red herring.  Most estimates put the cost at slightly less than $1trillion over 10 years. To put that in perspective, that is about the amount spent in seven years on the Iraqi war; the amount spent in one year to bail out the banks, insurance companies, and the auto industry; or half the amount spent over 9 years to provide tax cuts to those in the highest income tax brackets.3 (See note below.) Healthcare reform could easily be paid for by letting the 2001 tax cuts expire . The United States has a graduated income tax scale based on the idea that those who profit the most from the resources and opportunities our country offers should pay more in taxes. Perhaps seeing that every citizen has health care would let us feel good about paying more in taxes.

(1)   See: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32011837/

(2)   http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/sourcesheet.php?id=529

(3) Citizens for Tax Justice, using data from the Congressional Budget Office, calculate  that  the 2001 tax cuts have cost  about $2.1 trillion in lost revenue and another $0.4 trillion in  interest  on  the deficit created. Letting the tax cuts expire would  save about  $2.5 trillion over the next 10 years which would pay for Health Care Reform twice over.    See  http://www.ctj.org/pdf/bushtaxcutsvshealthcare.pdf  for their figures.

Research Credit:  Barbara Moore

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