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'Socializing' medicine would sting

| Thursday, March 18, 2004

Socializing medicine will be one election issue this year that's most unlikely to be called "socializing." The word stings too much.

Politicians always try to socialize the problems of favored groups by making everybody else pay, but recoil at the truth in labeling. To call it "socialist," a cousin of "communist," would be sure to be attacked as a dirty trick.

Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democrats' presidential candidate, launched a subtle new euphemism on the road to socialism recently in Houston, Texas. Health care, he said, "is a right for all Americans." The Declaration of Independence and Constitution missed that one, but Kerry found it. A right is something no citizen can be denied. Hence, society must provide.

In fairness, the Massachusetts Democrat didn't go the whole hog. Actually, he suggested one thing that seems at least arguable in the coming war of words. Polls show raging health costs are now American voters' third biggest worry. Only the economy and jobs trouble them more. Even terrorism is an also-ran.

Kerry would somehow pass responsibility for some of the nation's 43.6 million uninsured to the federal government and the states. He'd have Washington take over all health claims above $50,000, in fact. That is no negligible temptation.

Truly catastrophic illness, the quarter-million-dollar nightmare surgeries and chronic illnesses bleed too many patients dry before they die, and it is a sound principle to insure against great rather than petty losses.

But there's another side. Private catastrophic insurance exists. Shouldn't people be encouraged to buy that (with tax credits perhaps?) rather than send the bill to Uncle Sam• You also could practically bet that if the government's going to pay all bills over $50,000, more bills will cross that tempting threshold. Entrepreneurial medicine would see to it.

There's a long-standing precedent for socialism to pick up some medical catastrophes. A class of patients long ago taken over by the states is the mentally ill. Countless families would be absolutely busted if not for state mental hospitals and outpatient facilities.

President Bush weighed in the other day with another, and a reasonable though partial, idea for putting the brakes on runaway health care costs. It's an oldie: setting limits on lawsuits against doctors for malpractice. Previous Congresses and the state legislature have taken it up. There's only one big obstacle: the lawyers' lobby, which sees the sky as the only limit on "pain and suffering" damages set by juries.

These deep pockets are everybody's, though, as Bush seems to realize. He decried the "frivolous and junk lawsuits" -- which Democrat Kerry dare not attack -- that push doctors to early retirement and drive up costs via the proliferation of "defensive medicine" tests, pills and precautions to ward off the lawyers who circle on vulture's wings.

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