The real threat

July 30, 1991

It is a remarkable commentary on the enduring grip of the Cold War that in the very week in which the first arms-reduction treaty in the nuclear age was signed, the U.S. Senate will vote on a measure which amounts to a vast escalation of the arms race.

Sen. Sam Nunn, the chief Democratic defense specialist in government, maintains deploying an immensely costly anti-ballistic missile system is necessary to protect against missiles which might be accidentally launched by the Soviet Union, or launched deliberately by some other country. We suspect the real reason for Nunn's proposal is to pre-empt Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" fantasy. But the fact is, Nunn's proposal is no more needed than "Star Wars."

What is desperately needed, however, is immediate government action to reform the health-care system, which is the costliest in the world yet one of the most inefficient. Yesterday the New York Times reported that President Bush's own task force, which was commissioned to examine the nation's faltering health-care system, has produced a report that might serve at least as a skeleton for an administration policy where now there is a total void -- an astonishing situation considering that there is a rapidly emerging consensus on the need for health-care reform.

The Bush task force, a non-partisan group, is recommending a plan that bears a marked similarity to the one advanced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who is emerging as the chief Democratic spokesman for health-care reform in the nation. The crux of each plan would be to cover the 34 million Americans who are now without any health insurance at all -- either private insurance provided through their workplaces or Medicaid coverage by the government.

These people are, for the most part, the working poor. For them, the emergency room has become the family physician. In practical terms this means illnesses are neglected until they become crises -- which often require costly hospitalization at public expense for what could have been inexpensive prevention.

But of course the working poor are but part of the crisis. Collectively, Americans are now spending over 12 percent of the Gross National Product on health care, far more than any other industrialized nation in the world, and that figure could rise to a devastating 20 percent during the present decade if unchecked.

The greatest threat to Americans is not ballistic missiles but financial devastation by uninsured illness. Congress should focus its attention and resources on that problem and stop this endless frittering away of wealth on weapons systems like "Star Wars" or Sen. Nunn's anti-ballistic missile scheme.

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