Groggy over health-care crisis

July 08, 1994|By Russell Baker

WRITTEN after deep health-care immersion:

America faces a grave health-care crisis, though maybe not.

There are five, or maybe nine or 10, bills in Congress for dealing or not dealing with the crisis or noncrisis, depending on whether it is a crisis or not.

One of these is the Dole plan, and it is much too confusing to go into here, as are the other four, eight or nine plans, as the case may be, none of which will be enacted anyhow, permitting us to move ahead to the real questions.:

1. Why do you have to go bankrupt before you can die?

2. Is it true that Newt Gingrich is wearing President Clinton's old hair?

3. Whither coronary thrombosis?

4. Is Ira Magaziner the brilliant criminal-defense lawyer known as "the great white shark" who was interviewed on television the other night about O.J. Simpson's health-insurance policy?

We won't know the answers until Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, starts melding the bills on the Senate floor, provided, of course, that the Senate's bill melder can be repaired.

If not, Mr. Mitchell will become the baseball commissioner. This job will confront him with an entirely different health-care mystery; to wit, why the sudden decline in rotator-cuff surgery and the corresponding increase in medial-ligament operations on the knee?

Fortunately for people heavily invested in insurance companies, the industry will continue to thrive, whether a bill of any sort is passed.

Everybody who counts, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, fears American medicine will collapse if deprived of the insurance industry's genius for converting everything from colic to Huntington's chorea into easily collectible profit.

Most of the bills being proposed frown on the insurance industry's practice of canceling coverage of people who become ill. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas would deal with any such insurance company by sending a note home to its mother.

Of utmost importance is universal coverage, because President Clinton has threatened to veto any bill that does not provide universal coverage.

But what does universal mean? Some say covering 90 percent of the population would be universal, and some say 95 percent. In other words, the universal coverage being discussed is not universal, nor should we expect it to be. Established theory holds that any politician who means precisely what he says is unfit to revise and extend his remarks in the Congressional Record.

Some say covering 90 percent of the population one of these days in some future century would fill the bill. Others say giving everybody the right to buy insurance from a private company would satisfy the universality requirement.

Since this is exactly where we seem to be at present, universality-wise, pessimists worry that Congress lacks the necessary zeal for universal coverage, which might compel Mr. Clinton to use his veto or face the classic question asked many years ago by a Minnesota Congressman named Blatnik:

"Why you Demos talk so much, do so nothing?"

Shocking though it is, politics also seems to figure in the health-care debate. This is because elections will be held not only this fall, but also in the fall of 1996.

The curse of elections is that they require politicians to attack each other. This is because the theatrical demands of the 10-second TV commercial for an audience marinated in gunplay and car crashes not only insist on violence, but also rule out sensible discourse.

So, our custom of incessantly holding elections requires a constant supply of government failures for which politicians can blame each other in campaign commercials. This explains why our statesmen are compelled to avoid trying to solve civic problems.

Russell Baker is a syndicated columnist.

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