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It is an old joke among health-policy wonks that what the American people really want from health-care reform is unlimited care, from the doctor of their choice, with no wait, free of charge. For Republicans, trying to square this circle has led to panic, paralysis, and half-baked policy proposals such as the Obamacare-replacement bill that passed the House last month. For Democrats, it has led from simple disasters such as Obamacare itself to a position somewhere between fantasy and delusion.
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The latest effort to fix health care with fairy dust comes from California, whose Senate voted last week to establish a statewide single-payer system. As ambitious as the California legislation is, encompassing everything from routine checkups to dental and nursing-home care, its authors haven’t yet figured out how it will be paid for. The plan includes no copays, premiums, or deductibles. Perhaps that’s because the legislature’s own estimates suggest it would cost at least $400 billion, more than the state’s entire present-day budget. Legislators hope to recoup about half that amount from the federal government and the elimination of existing state and local health programs. But even so, the plan would necessitate a $200 billion tax hike. One suggestion being bandied about is a 15 percent state payroll tax.
It turns out that “free” health care isn’t really free at all. How, though, could a single-payer system possibly cost so much? Aren’t we constantly told that other countries spend far less than we do on health care?
Foreign health-care systems rely heavily on the U.S. system to drive medical innovation and technology. There’s a reason why more than half of all new drugs are patented in the United States, and why 80 percent of non-pharmaceutical medical breakthroughs, from transplants to MRIs, were introduced first here.
Adopting a single-payer system would crush the American economy, lowering wages, destroying jobs, and throwing millions into poverty. So Americans are likely to end up with a lot less health care and than they have been promised.
Santa Claus will always be more popular than the Grinch. But the health-care debate needs a bit more Grinch and a lot less Santa Claus.
Americans cannot have unlimited care, from the doctor of their choice, with no wait, for free. The politician that tells them as much will not be popular. But he or she may save them from something that will much more likely resemble a nightmare than a utopian dream.
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