To listen to the democratic candidates for president talk about universal health care, one would think that its implementation is a forgone conclusion as soon as a democrat can attain the presidency. And why not, most liberal-minded politicos tend to think. Universal health care means everyone gets health care, right? What could possibly be wrong with that? Those who are able to fund more health care than necessary for themselves will now contribute a little to the health care of those for whom it is under-provided. But the potentially harmful economic effects of a universal health care plan in the United States make it an issue which should not be immediately taken for face value on the basis of its clearly positive goal. Furthermore, the potential political gains for the democratic candidates espousing the plan make it an issue of which every American should be suspicious.
Fans of the idea of universal health care are probably already thinking of Sweden, Great Britain and other countries with socialized medicine plans where things seem to be working beautifully, and they are not completely off the mark. Most people’s basic needs are being provided for in these countries, regardless of ability to pay — a strong contrast to the situation in America, and the strongest argument for socialized health care. But any ailment more serious than strep throat places the sufferer in a line for treatment that can be months long, depending on the affliction. Individuals whose lives depend on heart operations or liver or kidney transplants often find themselves counting down the days until death, hoping their name will come up on the list. And this occurs regardless of the individual’s willingness to pay, and with very little regard for the severity of the person’s situation.
Still, based on the success of countries with socialized health systems in providing basic preventative care for their citizens, universal health care seems like a solution to many problems in the US. But the implication that the success stories of these countries will translate to success in America is fallible, as Britain, Sweden and other countries with socialized health care do not exist in a vacuum. A large part of their present and (potential) continued success must be attributed to the United States’ decision to maintain some semblance of private medicine.
There remains in America something that has died in much of Europe: a profit incentive to invent new drugs, to find new methods of treatment, and to investigate new diseases. While Lance Armstrong would have you believe that Bristol-Meyers Squibb has made great leaps forward in cancer research because they want to help recovering cancer patients like him, the fact is that they have been motivated because they want to help rich cancer patients like him. Good will undoubtedly plays a part, but profit drives pharmaceutical corporations, and pharmaceutical corporations are still the driving force in medical research. All the world’s citizens benefit from this research.
The sad fact of profit incentives in the world of medicine means that often only the rich can afford new medical innovations. Medicine is an emotionally charged issue where lives are often on the line. It is essential, however, not to let emotion cloud logic. A universal health care plan would certainly slow down, and could eventually stagnate, American medical innovation, a sector which makes up the vast majority of world medical innovation. We only need to look at the last 25 years to realize that the number and variety of diseases in the world is increasing faster than we can keep up with, so any kind of deceleration in research would be detrimental to world health in the long run. The short-term cost of maintaining the current pace of innovation is that the impoverished victims of many diseases presently being researched will not be able to purchase the cures when they are discovered. However, the prices of new medications quickly drop as cheaper methods of production are found. The cost of making these drugs immediately affordable may be that many future remedies will never be produced, and rich and poor alike will become unable to take advantage of them.
Suddenly universal health care starts to look like it may end up as one more refrain in the long pattern of governmental decisions which are clearly designed to generate support from the electorate without concern for what is actually best for the country. Democrats stand to win a large number of votes based on the issue of universal health care from people who, by and at large, have absolutely no understanding of the policy beyond a very primary level, and who stand to suffer in the long run because of it. Republicans do the same thing every two years to their strongest voter base in the rural south, culling votes from poor, misinformed voters with a Christian moral platform. This platform subsequently takes the back-burner to an economic policy which clearly harms these same voters.
The bottom line is that politicians on both sides of the aisle have their eyes firmly set on remaining in power, no matter how much dishonesty that goal requires. And until voters take it upon themselves to become truly informed beyond what they hear in campaign ads and debates, our leaders will continue to espouse and enact policies which benefit themselves, regardless of what benefits the nation most.
Paul McLaughlin is a sophomore in Silliman College.