Monday, September 28, 2009

Free Lunch

The title I chose is slightly misleading. I am not going to talk about how to get lunch for free, or even about the free lunch program specifically. I'm also not offering you lunch for free (it wasn't an announcement!).

"There's no such thing as a free lunch."

We've all heard this slogan at one time or another and many obviously don't really know what it means. While I think it was coined prior, my understanding is that it was referring to the free school lunch program. There were lots of parents who wondered why their child couldn't get on the program. To which someone replied, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." The reason this is the case is because someone has to pay for that lunch. The children who are on the program don't have to pay for their lunch, but the lunch itself is certainly not free. Who pays for the "free" lunch? The taxpayers (ie. you) do.

While some people can't grasp the concept of there not being a truly free lunch, there apparently are even fewer who actually understand that there's no such thing as free health care. With the idea of a government program that guarantees access to health care, there are many people who are under the false impression that this will mean free health care for all. What it really means is that the entirety of the taxpaying public will be splitting the bill for the true health care costs that are incurred as a result of someone using the program. Now there probably are some instances where there is an advantage to do this, but in most cases it makes bad economic sense. The problem isn't that pooling our resources to guarantee that everyone has access to "basic health care" is a bad idea. The problem is that people can't decide what "basic health care" entails, and when the government should pay it out.

I was listening to the radio late last week and there was a woman talking about how women are cheated by the health care system. She asserted that women are paying an unfair advantage of health care costs because when they get pregnant, they have to pay more in co-pays and/or deductibles than men do. She continued by declaring that any government health care program should pay for pregnancy care in full because that should be considered basic health care. I don't know what else she said because my face turned red and I was so angry I needed to turn off the radio. Pregnancy is not a medical "condition." It is a lifestyle choice that requires medical attention in order to increase the likelihood of success. I don't feel I should need to pay for a couple's lifestyle choices just as I don't expect them to pay for my cat's medical expenses (at his age, they are surely more expensive than the co-pays this woman complained about). Likewise, I don't feel sorry for those families who have to pay higher health care costs because they have children. Only someone who lived in isolation their entire life would assume that raising a child would not incur personal costs. It is unfair that the public should need to contribute anything toward someone else's pregnancy expenses or those necessary to keep someone else's children healthy. The only reason when the public should become involved is to assist those who have clearly fallen on hard times and the family and children need public assistance. I'll even allow for some cheaters here and there.

Now to return to the free lunch... The problem here is that people are not willing to take personal responsibility for their own lifestyle choices. People don't really want free basic medical care. What they want is to be able to do whatever they want and make lifestyle choices that could impact health care costs, and then not have to pay those costs. They don't want basic health care. They want free health care. There's no such thing as free health care.

All this being said, the health care industry needs some reforms. There are way too many people gobbling up money from all of us in various ways in order to facilitate getting health care. Health insurance was originally designed to address catastrophic illness, and employers provided health benefits to their employees to minimize the amount of time workers were absent (or as an incentive to work for that company). As more and more people have come to depend on insurance to pay all of their health care expenses and as procedures have become more complex (and more expensive), the cost of managing health care benefits has skyrocketed. Lawsuits and other demands placed on doctors who actually provide services have also contributed to the high cost of health care. There are greedy people who purposely overcharge for various items because they are needed to provide necessary health care. These are all symptoms of a broken health care system that truly needs reform.

I'm not sure exactly where the best answer lies. The caring, considerate part of me thinks that everyone should have access to any procedure that will help save their life. The practical, pragmatic part of me says that to do this will cause people to abuse this system. They're already doing that now. Perhaps what the U.S. government should do is create some standards for health care and what is required of practitioners when providing care. Perhaps some kind of regulation is necessary to prevent gouging in the industry. Educate people how to properly utilize health care (going to the emergency room for a cold is not cost-effective or necessary). Is that enough? Probably not.

I've written a lot about unintended consequences in the past few months. I'm very worried that there are a bunch of unintended consequences lurking in the proposals for government-run health care that have reached my ears in bits and pieces. Ask doctors, and they're all concerned. Some legitimately feel that their ability to provide quality health care will be affected. Some see their excessive profits going bye-bye. No matter what, a knee-jerk reaction to this situation is sure to fail. We're dealing with human life. We're dealing with a situation where preventative medicine, applied correctly, will avoid unnecessary costs down the road. We're dealing with a public (including myself) that has eaten themselves into obesity. I know that times are tough right now, but once a bad government program is put into place, it is very hard to get rid of it later. Think very carefully and learn all you can before you put your support behind any government health care plan. Otherwise, you may be unpleasantly surprised when you see the costs sneak-up on you...

No comments: