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Social Security smokescreen obscures underlying issue

The sky is falling. At least, that’s what the administration would have us believe about Social Security (immaterial, apparently, that the figures don’t support that scenario).

While Social Security may indeed face problems long after the current administration has shuffled off the scene, the underlying, more urgent, and potentially more fiscally disastrous problem is the U.S. health care system.

Social Security’s problems are 30 or more years away, and even then it’s not the unmitigated disaster portrayed by the privatization proponents — the system will just be forced to pay reduced benefits if nothing is done to shore it up.

But Medicare, the tail that’s wagging the dog, is gobbling money and resources at an alarming rate, and is forecast to go bust in 2012, just seven years away. Medicaid — well, that’s a disaster right now, as state and federal governments try to corral mushrooming costs.

The trustees of the Social Security and Medicare systems are already warning monthly premiums for Medicare will jump by 12 percent in 2006. That, on the heels of an unprecedented 17 percent increase this year.

And that’s just for the senior citizen crowd.

Estimates are that 15 percent — repeat, 15 percent — of this nation’s entire Gross Domestic Product is spent on health care. More than 40 million citizens have no health insurance at all.

And if you think 15 percent of GDP for health care is bad, projections are that, unless something is done to put on the brakes, it could grow to almost 25 percent in just six years.

Wholesale prices for the 200 most-prescribed drugs rose 7.1 percent last year, the largest increase in five years and more than twice the rate of inflation. Since 1999, prices for the 150 most-prescribed drugs rose an average 35.1 percent, three times the rate of inflation for the period.

Everyone has his or her own anecdotes about the medical system and the seeming lack of knowledge and total indifference of providers as to what things cost. A personal example:

For a checkup a while back, a physician ordered a battery of tests that totaled nearly $8,000 in testing/physician/technician charges and took some 12 hours of my time to tell me what I already knew: that I’m in reasonably good shape for the shape I’m in.

Reviewing the results with the physician, I asked, “When you order all these tests, do you have any idea what they cost?” The response: “No, I don’t — that’s not my concern.”

That’s pretty much the attitude throughout the health care provider system: It’s not our concern what it costs.

To carry it further: When the $8,000 in charges went through my insurance company, they reduced the amounts actually paid by 40 percent or more. Without insurance, however, I’d have been hounded for the full, non-discounted charges.

There is something inherently flawed in a system where each part doesn’t know, or care, about the costs of another part, and until something is done to get a grip, health care costs will continue escalating.

Despite the scare tactics, Social Security ain’t broken. But the health care system is badly bent.


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