GOP should favor health overhaul

Nine of the 10 Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee have sent a letter to the Obama administration rejecting a public plan option, much less a single- payer system, in the coming debate over health care reform.

As a Republican, a health care executive and former chairman of the Republican Party of Jasper County, I believe this is a mistake, technically and politically.

Although strongly in favor of universal coverage, President Franklin Roosevelt de-emphasized it in favor of pushing through Social Security. Industry lobbyists were simply too strong.

Since then, initiatives to establish comprehensive national health care insurance have failed. In the meantime, about 20,000 Americans die each year due to lack of insurance. Is this the America that we want for our children?

We hear repeatedly that the American health care system is the world's best. But the U.S. spends much more per capita than any other nation and our mortality and morbidity outcomes are worse than those in most developed countries.

Further, many Americans believe that major changes are needed. Picis, a provider of information systems for hospitals, looked at health care perceptions by citizens in the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain and France last year.

More Americans (63 percent) than Frenchmen (54 percent) believed that the "quality of health care in my country has declined or stagnated." By the way, more Spaniards (56 percent) and Brits (48 percent) were positive about their "socialist" health care systems than Americans were about ours.

Yes, we do have many people coming here to take advantage of excellent facilities, but they do not come from Europe with its "socialized medicine." They come from the Middle East and Central and South America, hardly the health care model that we are advocating here.

A recent Kaiser poll showed 77 percent of Democrats want health reform now, versus 56 percent of independents and only 38 percent of Republicans. It is easy to see why few Republican politicians would support real reform. However, I believe that position will hurt the party long-term, as did GOP opposition to Social Security in the 1930s.

We have an obvious solution to the worsening health care access crisis: expand Medicare to cover all. Why expand Medicare? Because Medicare works. If our government can operate the best military in the world, then it can manage health insurance.

Private providers will continue to deliver health care and physician relationships will be preserved, as they are for Medicare recipients right now. There are no waiting lines now for essential care and there would not be under Medicare if everyone was covered. There would be no more rationing than there is currently done by private insurers, which can and do frequently refuse to reimburse care. Furthermore, a recent poll found that 64 percent of Americans support at least a public-plan option.

Expanding Medicare is not "socialism" any more than operating Veterans Administration hospitals or public schools is communism. Do you know of any patriotic older Americans who are so unhappy with their "socialistic" Medicare that they want to give it up? For that matter, none of my Republican friends want to give up their VA care; neither does my brother, a vet who is medically indigent.

Cost savings can be achieved. Medicare administrative costs are much lower than the private insurance sector, which spends about one-third of our premium dollars on marketing-related costs. Further, more savings will be possible if the effort to identify the best, most cost-effective treatments, now underway in the Medicare program, are expanded under a single-payer system.

This will largely offset the higher expenditures needed to cover those between jobs, early retirees and the uninsured working stiffs left out in the cold by an employer who fails to continue coverage.

Yes, there will be cost shifting from businesses to government. This will make our industries more competitive with foreign manufacturing, which does not pay health benefits to its employees. That's a real stimulus for American car manufacturers.

And there will be cost shifting from state and local government, which are now picking up part of the tab for their own employees and the uninsured, to the federal government. This may not solve our state budget crisis in Georgia, but it sure won't hurt.

Jack Bernard is a former health care executive and chairman of the Jasper County Commission.