DATE: 1/13/2005 09:26:00 AM
Mandatory Belts - Seat belts are a good idea. Anyone who doesn't wear them is a ninny, especially when driving in Maine during the winter months. Okay, enough disclaimers. The governor's seat belt initiative is a feel-good measure, impossible to enforce, that will do nothing to prevent healthcare costs from rising. From today's Bangor Daily News:
Uninsured Mainers who elect to drive without using their seat belts are racking up enormous hospital bills in the aftermath of automobile accidents and ratcheting up the cost of health care for everyone else in the state. To illustrate the point at a Wednesday morning news conference, Dr. Erik Steele, chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, walked to the end of the massive conference table in the governor's cabinet room and unfurled the hospital bill from a single patient.
It was 12 feet long.
"This is the hospital bill from a Maine Medicaid patient - it's $78,000 from an unbelted patient who was injured in a crash in Maine and taxpayers paid for this patient," Steele said. "I have several of these bills...These tremendous costs can be prevented and must be prevented, if we're really to get a handle on health care costs in this state."Governor Baldacci wants to make the failure to use a seat belt a primary offense, rather than secondary. This means in Maine, police will be free to pull you over for not having a seat belt on in your car. And just how on earth will they ensure that we're all wearing our seat belts? And how much will that increased enforcement cost in terms of manhours in the police department and court system? Will it outweigh the losses we're already taking in healthcare costs?
Then there's the other issue - the hospital is not completely blameless in this situation. Why was the bill 12 pages long? What was done to this patient that required 12 pages worth of medical treatment? A few months ago, I had chest pains and went to the ER. I'm only 32, so I figured it was probably nothing, but chest pains are chest pains. I got right in, had an EKG, a chest X-ray and some blood work. Turned out to be nothing. I was at the hospital for maybe three hours. Cost me nearly $600 and I got three separate bills - one for the bloodwork, one from the hospital and one for the X-ray. My insurance covered most of it, but the cost was still high.
Now, X-rays were discovered in 1895. This is not new technology. So why does it still cost so much to get one? The answer is artificial price controls. Steele answered his own question during his presentation - the patient had Medicare, which sets a certain cost on procedures through its reimbursement rates. If the market were setting costs and not Medicare and insurance companies, health care would cost what the average customer could afford. However, most of us use insurance, which helps set the cost at artificially high rates. Two dollar aspirins and such are the result of separating the consumer from the cost of the service.
Governor Baldacci just added to the problem by adding another price control system into the mix - Dirigo Health is a boondoggle that will put another reimbursement schedule into the cost of health care, all at the taxpayer's expense. And isn't it just convenient that the governor, after proposing this expensive health care system, gives police a whole new reason to collect revenue from drivers. I'm not the conspiracy theory type, but it's an interesting question.
Like most governments, Baldacci is attacking the easiest problem rather than face the facts that it's a flawed Medicare system and a flawed health care cost structure that have led to the current issue. Forcing people to wear seat belts and ticketing them for the infraction may help prevent some injuries and raise some revenue for the state, but it won't even begin to touch the problem of inflated health care costs, and the governor should stop pretending it does.