By Marilyn M. Singleton, MD, JD
You finally get your dream and are selected to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. You get to see Pat Sajak and Vanna White! You win a vacation to some country that you don’t really want to see. You cannot get the cash equivalent. You have to take 10 days off of work to take the free vacation you did not want. You discover that you have to pay the tax on the free vacation.
Or you win a free car. You have a perfectly functioning 3-year-old car. The free car was not really the car you would have selected. You accepted it because it was free. Then you see that you have to pay tax on the list price of the free car. You also discover that the collision insurance and Department of Motor Vehicles registration for the free car are significantly higher than for the car you currently own.
These are examples of why nothing is “free.” This applies to medical care as well. You may have to see the “health care provider” the government program or private insurer makes available to you. You don’t particularly want to see a nurse, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles with free health care. Oh well, you convince yourself that it’s okay because, just like that car on the game show, it was free.
Here’s a new spin on “free.” Yes, your medical care should be free – free from the restraints of government control. Free from the government rules that have raised the price of insurance premiums. The Affordable Care Act mandated ten essential benefits that all insurance plans must include free of out-of-pocket charges to patients. Of course, this does not include the initial out-of-pocket charge: the insurance premium. Insurance premiums shot up over the post-ACA year because the insurance plan has to cover conditions that the insured persons may not even encounter in their own lives. A glaring example is obstetrics coverage in a menopausal female. Preventive and wellness visits are also labelled as free.
Moreover, a recent AMA study revealed that over the last four years the competition in the commercial insurance market has decreased. In over 50 percent of metropolitan areas, representing about 73 million persons, one insurer has half of the market. The more concentrated the market, the higher the premiums.
Remember that free car? We all know and readily accept that car insurance does not pay for the gas and basic maintenance. So why should maintenance medical care be covered by insurance? Car insurance would be unaffordable for most car owners if it paid for gas, oil changes, new mufflers, radios, and batteries. Most states require drivers to have car insurance. If people can’t afford the insurance, they lose the benefit of owning a car.
Similarly, if you lose your health due to long waits or delayed diagnosis because the CT scan was not authorized or poor medication response because you had to take the formulary drug that was not the doctor’s first drug choice for you, the care is not free, but very costly.
The underlying message of free “health care” is disempowering. The message is that we are incapable of taking care of ourselves. Empowerment is having control over our own lives. First, we take charge of our own health by thinking about the choices we make. We choose to not smoke, overindulge in food or drink, or engage in foolhardy behaviors. Second, we decide what is important for our own health. If you do not want insurance coverage for obstetrics or fertility treatment because you are 50 years old and do not want children, there should be a less expensive insurance product available to you. Third, we need to be free to choose our own doctor as well as the treatment the doctor—not the invisible third-party payer—recommends.
The promised free health care would increase the payroll taxes on all workers, even if that worker does not want that particular brand of free medical care. The next time you hear that medical care is free, just think about that “free” car that is the wrong color, is too small, has uncomfortable seats, inadequate headroom, and overall is not what you really want.
Bio: Dr. Singleton is a board-certified anesthesiologist. She is Immediate Past President of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). She graduated from Stanford and earned her MD at UCSF Medical School. Dr. Singleton completed 2 years of Surgery residency at UCSF, then her Anesthesia residency at Harvard’s Beth Israel Hospital. While still working in the operating room, she attended UC Berkeley Law School, focusing on constitutional law and administrative law. She interned at the National Health Law Project and practiced insurance and health law. She teaches classes in the recognition of elder abuse and constitutional law for non-lawyers.