How Government Destroys Medical Care

By Greenhut, Steven | Freeman, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview

How Government Destroys Medical Care


Greenhut, Steven, Freeman


News in August that Northridge Hospital Medical Center's Sherman Way Campus, the San Fernando Valley's oldest hospital, would be shutting its doors, was greeted by Los Angeles County residents with the same sense of resignation that has greeted other recently announced hospital closures.

Another hospital or emergency room closing? What else is new?

Earlier in August, Elastar Community Hospital in East Los Angeles closed its emergency room and edged closer to closing the entire hospital after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2003. As the Los Angeles Times also reported in late August, "Six emergency rooms have closed in the last 14 months. Hospital and healthcare officials predict a further 10 percent to 15 percent reduction in the county's emergency room capacity, with three large ERs at private hospitals thought to be at risk of closure.

"All this is taking place as the number of Californians without health insurance continues to surge," according to the newspaper. "Since 1988, the number of emergency rooms in the county has dwindled from 97 to 79. Trauma centers have fallen from 16 to 13. Though some remaining hospitals have expanded their services to make up for those closures, the Los Angeles County population has grown by more than 1 million and the portion of uninsured residents has climbed from 20 percent to 27 percent during that period."

The Times reporter used terms such as "doomsday," "meltdown," and "Healthcare Chernobyl" to describe the situation, as emergency-room patients increasingly must wait 16 hours or more for treatment, or four days or more to get a bed in a hospital.

As is often the case, California is on the cutting edge of most every troubling trend, and Los Angeles County, the nation's most populous county, often leads the state over the brink. Those of us who live here can only shake our heads and wonder why local officials and residents don't understand the obvious root causes of the crisis du jour, and why residents of other states don't catch on before the crisis comes to them.

All of the recent crises have the same cause: government meddling in the market.

I learned the reasons for the health-care crisis after visiting an emergency room following a gall-bladder attack. I was prepared to show my insurance card and provide personal information so the hospital would know that I was going to he able to pay for the medical services I would receive. But the nurse recoiled in horror as I presented the card. "Put that away," she said. "We're not allowed to look at payment information before treating you."

The law is simple: No one may be turned away from a hospital, unless the hospital Joes not offer the specific services needed. Everyone must he served for free. As a result, California's poor and uninsured often rely on emergency rooms as their mainstay for health care. They go for immunizations, check-ups, sniffles, anything. No payment required. This is a function of federal law, but the high uninsured, immigrant population in Los Angeles, combined with other state laws has made this Ground Zero for the health-care crisis.

As the Los Angeles Times' Jason Felch reports, the crisis "has been blamed on old people and more people; nursing shortages and earthquake retrofits; the uninsured, the indigents and the illegal immigrants."

All of the above-mentioned factors deserve some blame, of course. The aging Anglo population needs an increasing amount of health care. There are severe nursing shortages. A law pushed forward by nurses' organizations and signed into law by former Governor Gray Davis mandates that the ratio of patients to nurses can be no higher than eight to one. it's one of those remarkable socialist-style laws that pretends to fix a problem by mandate, but only exacerbates the problem. There aren't enough nurses to meet those mandates, so now belligerent nurses unions are staging walkouts when hospitals, which cannot afford to meet the new mandate, fall short of the law. …

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