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HICKS: Flu season offers prelude to health care reform

October 17, 2009

This flu season looks to provide us an inkling of the real dangers inherent in large-scale health care reform, most especially a full-blown national health care option.

You see, the U.S. government has purchased all the current swine flu stocks. It and the states have also obtained a significant share of seasonal flu vaccinations. Distribution is to be made following a strict public health protocol. This should be easy. After all, we’ve been doing it for more than a century, right? Sadly, it is only when you confront the human face of it—even one filled with so many PhDs and MDs—that the inability of a large bureaucracy to get it right becomes obvious. Personal examples of this work best.

I have a kindergartner at home, who is healthy and active in all respects save for asthma, which becomes dangerous when he’s exposed to respiratory illnesses. He is among the first people who should receive seasonal and swine flu vaccinations. My wife has made more than a half-dozen calls to our primary care physician for the flu shot. All have been met with the same response: We have no vaccinations available.

Alas, a sickness-induced asthma attack last week brought us to the office. There, our doctor gave him the vaccine, which had actually been in stock for weeks. But because my child was not on Medicaid, the stocks the government purchased could not be diverted to him. This story is being repeated across the nation and is a chilling example of how a bureaucracy strangles the decisions of doctors and patients.

Sadly, that’s not the exasperating part. You see, I am a disabled veteran and can enter any Veteran’s Administration facility and get a seasonal flu shot. The VA is so flush with the vaccine that they even hold raffles to encourage more of us to get the shot.

 Any system that favors a low-risk adult over a high-risk child is damnably broken. It really doesn’t matter if the fault lies with the epidemiological researchers at the Centers for Disease Control, the state Department of Health or the physician’s office. The system cannot work precisely because it is a government—not doctors and patients—that makes the choices as to who gets the shot.

We live in an imperfect world, with scarcity and want. Right now, we have insufficient flu vaccine and struggle with a method of allocating these resources. There is no need to have this struggle. Like most Americans, I am happy to pay the market price and pay taxes to provide vouchers to the poor (as we currently do with food). And for my friends who mistrust markets, I ask: Wouldn’t it be far better for local physicians to make the decisions?

This bungling of health care highlights a simple fact: No government, however well-meaning or well-educated, can pull off a national health care plan well. Let us hope that righteous indignation toward a legislative catastrophe is the only discomfort we feel this flu season.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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