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The president and Congress are debating a “Patient’s Bill of Rights,” arguing over how to force Health Maintenance Organizations to treat their customers nicely.

No one in the hallowed halls of the Capitol bothers to wonder how it is that HMOs are able to abuse their customers without losing business to competitors. After all, no one has to force IBM, Dell, Compaq, or any other computer-maker to treat its customers nicely. If someone doesn’t like a computer company, he simply does business with someone else.

So no one is pushing for a “Bill of Rights” to protect customers against computer companies — or against doctors, druggists, barbers, or gardeners. So how did HMOs become so powerful and dictatorial that their customers need protection?

Back in 1973 Congress passed the HMO Act — which imposed regulations and tax rules that caused most large companies to use HMOs for their employee health plans. The Act was finally repealed in 1995, but by then government regulation had given HMOs the overwhelming, non-competitive power they wield today.

Real health-care reform

So why are Republicans and Democrats arguing over ways to push government even further into health care? Why aren’t they talking about real health-care reform? Why aren’t the politicians trying to create a heath-care system in which:

  • low-cost health insurance is available to virtually everyone — including people with existing medical problems;
  • doctors have the time to understand your problems and know you personally — and even make house calls;
  • a hospital stay costs only a few days’ pay, rather than many months of your income;
  • charity hospitals are available to take care of families that can’t afford the low-cost hospitals; and
  • free clinics take care of the everyday medical problems of people too poor to afford regular doctors.

Does this sound too good to be true? Does it sound like Al Gore, Teddy Kennedy, or George Bush on the campaign stump — making promises you know will never come true?

Actually, the health-care system I’ve described is the one we had in America until the mid-1960s. It was then that the federal government moved in — with Medicare, Medicaid, the HMO Act, and tens of thousands of regulations on doctors, hospitals, and health-insurance companies. That’s when health care started going downhill.

In area after area, we’ve seen the result that follows the statement “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” The government invariably makes things worse. In the case of health care, the government’s mischief is life-threatening.

To this we’ve come

Today half of all health-care dollars are spent by government. A large part of the rest of the health-care money is controlled by private companies to whom the government has granted favored status.

And who — other than the bureaucrats — is better off for all the government has done?

If you’re a senior citizen, has Medicare improved your life? Unfortunately, it’s more likely to be the opposite:

  • You probably pay more than twice as much from your own pocket for health care as you would have before Medicare — even after allowing for inflation.

  • Government-subsidized health care has led to rationing, causing Medicare to reject roughly 20 percent of all the procedures physicians decide are needed.

  • When Medicare denies a procedure you need, you’re forbidden to pay the doctor directly for it. You must go without.

  • There are over 100,000 pages of Medicare regulations — and ignorance of the law can lead to fines or imprisonment for you or your doctor.

Comparison

Some people say health care is more expensive and complicated because of so many new life-saving technologies. But that claim turns reality upside down.

Computers have become more and more useful while becoming much less expensive. In 1993 I bought a new hard disk for my computer. It could store a single gigabyte of information (roughly one billion characters) and it cost me $1,000. Today I can buy a faster disk that stores 20 gigabytes for only $100 — or $5 per gigabyte, only one-half of 1 percent of the cost eight years ago.

Why is the computer industry so much more efficient and so much less expensive?

Because it’s the freest industry in America. As yet there is no Department of Computers in Washington, and no Federal Software Agency to make every new computer program jump through years of bureaucratic hoops before you can use it to improve your life.

Real reform

The computer industry demonstrates the blessings that freedom can provide. If any politician in Washington really cared about your health care, he wouldn’t be debating how the federal government should impose its way on HMOs. He’d be pushing to get the government completely out of health care — and restore the best health-care system in history.

Any politician who doesn’t propose that kind of reform doesn’t really believe in freedom, in limited government, or in a strict construction of the Constitution — no matter what he says when he’s campaigning.

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