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Dying in Line

Dying in Line

By Jack Kelly - May 20, 2009

Hey, old farts. Hurry up and die!

That, in a nutshell, is how President Obama hopes to save large sums of money through health care "reform."

But that isn't how the president advertises it.

Mr. Obama summoned a dozen health care industry groups to the White House May 10 to discuss ways to slow the rise of health care costs.

"Leading groups in the health care industry have offered to squeeze $2 trillion in savings from projected increases over the next decade, White House officials said," the Washington Post reported.

The health care groups pledged to trim the rise in health care costs by 1.5 percent a year, administration officials said.

"Within ten years, the savings would 'virtually eliminate' the nation's budget deficit," those officials told the Post.

The president misrepresented what the groups proposed, said Richard Pollack, executive vice president of the American Hospital Association.

They didn't pledge to reduce health care costs by 1.5 percent a year.

That figure is the target the industry hopes to reach at the end of ten years. The administration exaggerated the potential savings by nearly 1,000 percent.

That the White House number was fishy should have been obvious to anyone who can do arithmetic, which, alas, few journalists can. Currently we spend about $2 trillion a year on health care. How plausible is it that we could save the entire amount we're currently spending on health care in just a decade chiefly through trimming paperwork, as the administration claims?

"Without the savings it thought the industry groups were talking about, the government projects that health costs will rise at an average of 6.2 percent annually over the next ten years," said the newsletter BNET Healthcare. "That means it will hit $4.4 trillion in 2018."

The costs very well may be much more than that, because most experts estimate the cost of President Obama's plan to provide health insurance to Americans who currently don't have it at upwards of $150 billion a year.

Americans want the best health care in the world. We want it right now.

And we want someone else to pay for it. But quality care is expensive.

We can save some money by streamlining paperwork and limiting lawsuits.

But there are only two ways to save large amounts of money. We can ration by price, or we can ration by queue. Currently, we do neither, which is chiefly why health care costs are soaring.

In countries, like England and Canada, where health care is "free," rationing is by queue. In England, expensive procedures are forbidden to many of the elderly. Canada doesn't formally deny old people expensive operations, but they have to wait so long to get them many die before the surgery can be performed.

The president wants to make our system more like Canada's. But to do this, and to save the big bucks he wants to save, Mr. Obama has to deny a host of expensive procedures to the elderly and the infirm. (In an interview with the New York Times magazine published April 14, the president mused about whether his grandmother should have been permitted to have a hip replacement.) We need to get a grip on the high cost of dying. We'll spend between a third and half of all the money we spend on health care in the last six months of our lives. But it seems pretty cold to deny a potentially life saving procedure to someone just because he or she has reached a certain age.

The president knows most Americans don't want the government deciding what health care they can or cannot have, so he isn't talking about rationing -- yet.

"The Obama team hopes that by enacting the expansions of coverage but not the needed cost-controls this year, they can create unalterable facts on the ground without having a real debate about rationing," wrote James Capretta and Yuval Levin. "Then in a year or two they will come back... and insist on stricter controls in the name of protecting the Treasury."

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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