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No Rush To Reform

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America’s health care system is a financial and medical wreck, a collection of competing interests and incentives that guarantee inefficiency and reward sloth.

It costs too much, and it doesn’t serve enough people.It rewards hospitals and physicians who over-test and over-serve insured patients while forcing the uninsured to rely on emergency rooms, luck and charity. It reserves lifesaving therapies only for those who can pay. It turns medical professionals into paper-pushing bureaucrats. Finally, it costs far more than any other health system in the world and renders what other developed nations consider middling care.

Not one of those shortcomings is reason enough to rush a comprehensive overhaul through Congress. There’s simply too much risk that reckless reform would make things worse while bankrupting the nation.

Nevertheless, goaded by an impatient White House, Congress is racing toward a plan to upend how America pays for health care and who would get it.

Politically, it won’t be easy. Entrenched interests in the medical industry — including insurance and drug companies — fear change and what it might do to their bottom lines. They are willing to spend anything and say anything to keep things largely as they are.

In the meantime, advocates of a national insurance model — like Britain’s or Canada’s — see an opportunity to sway just enough lawmakers to the idea of a public insurance option as a precursor to universal coverage. What’s different is that some of those advocates now include overburdened manufacturing companies and medical professionals.

Even Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, has signaled a willingness to accept a certain level of government intervention. The retailer recently endorsed a mandate for employers to provide health insurance.

If making things worse is one danger in a rush to reform, so is not changing the current system enough to make a lasting difference.

Inertia means that Congress usually wants to do as little as possible. In the case of health care, that means lawmakers risk settling for reform that merely obscures the problems, like laying carpet over a floor riddled with holes.

Giving people subsidies to buy insurance can’t patch those holes or fix the health care system in America. Neither will a government-run system that attempts to make one standard of care fit everyone. Neither will raising taxes on America’s richest people to pay for all of it. What ails America’s health care system goes beyond any current proposal, no matter how complicated, no matter how many pages, no matter how quickly it moves.

When Congress is considering massive changes in an industry that eats a growing 17 percent of the nation’s entire gross domestic product, it better get it right.

Few lawmakers have any idea what’s in the current health care reform plan, what implications those measures might have, or even whether they are equal to the problems. Perhaps the issue will become clearer in another month. But given how law is made, chances are it will grow even murkier.

Reform of the nation’s health care system needs to accomplish two things: hold down costs, while making sure that everyone is covered.

Americans have embraced those goals. So have medical professionals. Businesses small and large have, too.

So why do Americans continue to suffer with a health care system grafted onto medical and insurance infrastructure that was outdated a half-century ago?

Like so many things in medicine’s procedures and finances, America’s current system remains mired in inertia and fear of change.

Rushing a bill through Congress will only make both worse while doing little to bring the structural change health care so desperately needs.

•This Landmark News Service editorial first appeared in the Virginian-Pilot.