Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Public Option for Healthcare: Logical Flaws in the Argument Against

I am mystified by the arguments presented by opponents of the “public option” for health insurance. Their line of reasoning has a rather obvious logical flaw. The gist of the argument against the public option is that it would lead to a government take over of the entire health care system because private insurers couldn’t compete with the government. Opponents of the public option say that would be a bad outcome because government-run-health care would not be able to provide the kind of health care services people want and need. Their underlying assumption is that any health care plan run by the government would be an inferior product compared to private health insurance.

But, that assumption is the source of the logical flaw. Since when is it a competitive advantage to offer an inferior undesirable product? If public health care were really as bad as opponents claim, why would anyone choose it? It seems that the real fear opponents of the public option have is that many people might find it an attractive choice. But, if it’s an attractive choice, why is that a problem?

Actually the market place is full of examples where private, for-profit companies compete successfully against government-run or non-profit entities.

My job at a private college is not threatened by the existence of cheaper public schools.

Rural electric cooperatives are not a threat to for-profit electric companies because those companies do not find it profitable to serve the rural market.

Package delivery services provided by private companies such as UPS and FedEx compete successfully against the “public option” of the U. S. Postal Service.

The existence of member-run credit unions did not put private banks out of business.

In fact the banks managed to fail by themselves; no outside competition was needed. That fact calls into question the entire assumption that privately-owned equals competent and efficient while government-run equals inept and wasteful. To borrow the title of a recent book on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, “a colossal failure of common sense ” permeates the management of many privately run companies.

No organization, public or private, is immune from ineptness and mismanagement. But, if I worked for an organization that I perceived as incompetent, I would work to fix the problems or find another job. I would not contribute to the problems just to prove my point that the organization is dysfunctional. Unfortunately, many members of Congress work for the government solely to prove that government doesn't work.

Actually, private and non-profit health insurers already compete head-to-head in the marketplace. My health plan through my employer is with a non-profit company. Its existence hasn’t put the private for-profit health insurers in my state out of business. I fail to see how public health insurance for people not currently served can be a threat to the existing private insurance system.

No one has suggested that private insurance and private health care be outlawed. This being America, I have no doubt that those who have the jobs and income that provide adequate health care will continue to receive the kind of care to which they are accustomed. The issue is how do we as a nation provide care for the tens of millions of fellow citizens who are not served by the current system. Many of the uninsured have zero options available. Every other developed nation in the Western world takes care of its citizens. How can the richest nation of them all, claim it cannot afford to?

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of the award-winning The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy

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