"Health care costs," President Obama intoned as he kicked off a summit on the subject, are "causing a bankruptcy every 30 seconds." Cord Blomquist on Openmarket.org observed that in 2008, a big year for bankruptcies, there were a total of 1.1 million bankruptcies. Adding up Obama's numbers -- 120 bankruptcies per hour times 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year equals 1,051,200 bankruptcies per year -- would suggest that only 100,000 of those were for non-medical expenses. Does that make sense in the midst of a collapsing housing market? The study Obama based his numbers on was flawed in other ways as well, as ABC's Gary Langer posted on the ABC News website.
Beware of politicians bearing statistics. But what is even more galling than misleading (or outright false) statistics is to watch politicians rail about the expense of health insurance without once acknowledging their own role in jacking up the price. Health care is expensive of course -- though it also delivers value (improved quality and length of life). But our jerry-built system has made buying insurance much more expensive than it should be. State mandates require insurance companies to cover a variety of specialized medical services (usually at the behest of lobbyists for the relevant service providers) including: in vitro fertilization, marriage therapy, smoking cessation classes, hormone replacement therapy, chiropractor visits, and so on. That makes it impossible for companies to offer cheap, no-frills, high-deductible plans for the young and healthy. As Sally Pipes notes in "The Top Ten Myths of American Health Care" (Pacific Research Institute), there were only 252 mandates in force 30 years ago. Today there are 1901, an average of 38 per state.
Government involvement in the health care system, through mandates, reduced competition (such as forbidding shopping for insurance across state lines), and a skewed tax deduction that permits only employers and not employees to deduct the cost of health coverage, has made health care more expensive than it ought to be. Yet President Obama proposes that hair of the dog -- vastly more government involvement -- will bring down costs and improve quality.
If he follows the lead of Great Britain, Canada, or other systems he admires, he can definitely bring down costs. He can do it the way they have, by rationing care. But Americans should bear in mind this summer that when the president promises to get health care costs under control he is really promising less care. There is a better way. More competition, not less. More market discipline, not less. This will affect every American for generations to come. The stakes could hardly be higher.