POLITICAL COLUMNIST: New health direction needed

One of the great things about call-in radio is that you get to hear ordinary people connect reality to public policy.

One of the great things about call-in radio is that you get to hear ordinary people connect reality to public policy.

Take health care. Last week a caller on KOMO Newsradio told of his mother being diagnosed by three different physicians that an ache in her upper chest wasn’t serious. A fourth doctor caught it: cancer. She was instantly admitted for surgery, which was successful.

The caller’s point is that in a world with Obamacare, four different opinions on a medical diagnosis would be out of the question, especially for an elderly patient. That is why he ardently opposes the health care legislation in Congress.

But less than four minutes later, another call came in from a man talking about what happened to his mother. She had been diagnosed in middle age with cancer. It was early stage, she recovered after surgery and returned to work, eventually switching jobs. The cancer reoccurred and her employer’s medical plan did not cover “pre-existing conditions.” Her subsequent operation saved her life but wiped her out financially. That is why he ardently opposes the present health care system.

Both men are right. So isn’t there a health reform plan out there that would solve the current system’s shortcomings without creating new ones and blowing an even bigger hole in the deficit?

Yes.

At Whole Foods, the upscale grocery chain with a location in Bellevue, their health care program focuses on turning health care recipients into health care consumers. As laid out in The Wall Street Journal recently by Chief Executive Officer John Mackey, the program works like this:

The company covers all workers who log 30 or more hours a week (about nine in 10 employees). The firm pays 100 percent of the costs for a high-deductible health insurance plan. But Whole Foods also deposits up to $1,800 annually into each worker’s “Personal Wellness Account” to spend however they choose on their own health and physical fitness. Any money not spent rolls over to the next year, and the year after that, and so on (there is no “use it or lose it” penalty). By the time the deductible kicks in at about the $2,500 mark, most workers are able to pay for their health care expenses.

The difference, though, is that when Whole Foods employees need routine medical procedures, they have the incentive to shop for them, to get good value for the money. Prices suddenly matter to the health care recipient, which is how you create a market, with competition between doctors, clinics and health care providers. nd that is the only way to hold down costs, short of rationing medical care.

The Whole Foods idea emulates the same principles of the health care system in Singapore (high deductibles and personal health accounts), which spends less than a third proportionately on health care as this country, but has far higher life expectancy rates and far lower infant mortality. Instead of empowering government or insurance company bureaucrats, you empower health care consumers.

Both of the moms at the beginning of the column would have been spared losing their savings or being told “no” to repetitive tests if the Whole Foods program was our national model.

The bottom line is this. Yes, America does need health insurance reform. But it should be going in exactly the opposite direction of what they’re trying to do now in Congress.

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