Words Versus Realities

Thomas Sowell

4/22/2009 12:01:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

Much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I must report the shocking facts: Medical care is medical care. Nothing more and nothing less.

This may not seem like a breakthrough on the frontiers of knowledge. But it completely contradicts what is being said by many of those who are urging "universal health care" because so many Americans lack health insurance.

Insurance is not medical care. Indeed, health care is not the same as medical care. Countries with universal health care do not have more or better medical care.

The bottom line is medical care. But the rhetoric and the talking points are about insurance. Many people who could afford health insurance do not choose to have it because they know that medical care will be available at the nearest emergency room, whether they have insurance or not.

This is especially true for young people, who do not anticipate long-term medical problems and who can always get a broken leg or an allergy attack taken care of at an emergency room -- and spend their money on a more upscale lifestyle.

This may not be a wise decision but it is their decision, and there is no reason why other people should lose the right to make decisions for themselves because some people make questionable decisions.

If you don't think government bureaucrats can make questionable decisions, then you haven't dealt with many government bureaucrats.

It is one thing to deal with bureaucrats when you are at the Department of Motor Vehicles and in good health. It is something else when you have to deal with bureaucrats when you are lying on a gurney and bleeding or are doubled over in pain on a hospital bed.

People who believe in "universal health care" show remarkably little interest -- usually none -- in finding out what that phrase turns out to mean in practice, in those countries where it already exists, such as Britain, Sweden or Canada.

For one thing, "universal health care" in these countries means months of waiting for surgery that American get in a matter of weeks or even days.

In these and other countries, it means having only a fraction as many MRIs and other high-tech medical devices available per person as in the United States.

In Sweden, it means not only having bureaucrats deciding what medicines the government will and will not pay for, but even preventing you from buying the more expensive medicine for yourself with your own money. That would violate the "equality" that is the magic mantra.

Those who think in terms of talking points, instead of trying to understand realities, make much of the fact that some countries with government-controlled medical care have longer life expectancies than that in the United States.

That is where the difference between health care and medical care comes in. Medical care is what doctors can do for you. Health care includes what you do for yourself -- such as diet, exercise and lifestyle.

If a doctor arrives on the scene to find you wiped out by a drug overdose or shot through the heart by some of your rougher companions, there may not be much that he can do except sign the death certificate.

Even for things that take longer to do you in -- obesity, alcohol, cholesterol, tobacco -- doctors can tell you what to do or not do, but whether you follow their advice or not is what determines the outcome.

Americans tend to be more obese, consume more drugs and have more homicides. None of that is going to change with "universal health care" because it isn't health care. It is medical care.

When it comes to things where medical care itself makes the biggest difference -- cancer survival rates, for example -- Americans do much better than people in most other countries.

No one who compares medical care in this country with medical care in other countries is likely to want to switch. But those who cannot be bothered with the facts may help destroy the best medical care in the world by falling for political rhetoric.