Opinion L.A.

Don't buy Gingrich's doomsday healthcare prophecies

In more than three decades practicing medicine, I have been heartened by remarkable discoveries and innovations resulting in new treatments or the prevention of serious disease. But I have also been saddened by the erosion of public trust in medicine as a profession. Indeed, the poor performance of our current healthcare system and the perverse incentives and spiraling costs that impact the practice of medicine have fed this erosion of trust.

Like many other doctors, I have looked to the prospect of reform as a way for America to reclaim its place as an international leader in healthcare, and for physicians to focus on patients rather than bureaucracy and the bottom line. Undertaking such an important shift in how we deliver healthcare requires a robust national debate. Some leaders, however, choose to rely on fear instead of facts to make their case.

Newt Gingrich says nothing new in his Aug. 16 Times Op-Ed article, "Healthcare rationing: Real scary." Gingrich presents the same old litany of scare tactics that we've heard in the past: government bureaucracies run amok and limited choices resulting in rationed healthcare. Gingrich's doomsday prophecies are simply not consistent with the facts.

Every healthcare consumer in this nation (that's all of us) has a substantial stake in the success of reform. If we fail to pass the reform legislation, we will continue on our current downward financial spiral, and our fragmented healthcare system will ultimately collapse under the weight of increasing costs. Don't think for a minute that stopping reform is good for America. It's like deciding that a serious disease will get better if we ignore or fail to treat it -- even if the required treatment is painful.

Debates about healthcare reform are nothing new; they've been going on since the Truman administration. Previous attempts to fix our healthcare system have failed largely because of lobbying and political maneuvering by various special interest groups, including doctors, hospitals and the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. The groups that have killed reform in the past have one thing in common: None have put the care and treatment of patients first.

Now there is a possibility for real progress and change. Just as a disease that is ignored or denied is more resistant to treatment as time goes on, failure to reform our healthcare system will make controlling costs more difficult in the future. Yet Gingrich would rather fight the same old partisan political battles instead of ensuring that we finally guarantee the right of affordable, quality healthcare to every American.

I also find it distressing that Gingrich distorts the scholarly work of Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. I know Dr. Emanuel. I trust Dr. Emanuel. He is no Dr. Death, as Gingrich insinuates. He is a respected oncologist and bioethicist who cares deeply about the welfare of families and patients. Those interested in finding out Emanuel's true position on end-of-life healthcare should click here to read the full text of a column he wrote for the Atlantic in 1997, more than a decade before the current healthcare debate.

Gingrich writes that the critical test of any reform package is whether it will "empower individuals or impose on them." I agree, but let's have a reality check here: Failure to reform healthcare in the past has imposed huge financial burdens on every U.S. taxpayer. Rising healthcare costs are the reason why incomes in the U.S. haven't kept up with the cost of living. Moreover, without reform, out-of-control spending in the future will destroy much of the quality healthcare we now cherish. Today, healthcare spending accounts for about 17% of the U.S. gross domestic product; by 2018, that figure is projected be around 21%. Without action now, healthcare spending could account for the whole GDP before the end of this century.

Let's face it: We're on the verge of substantial reform, and it's fair to raise questions about exactly where we're headed. But beware of attempts to derail progress with scare tactics. We wouldn't scare a sick patient out of receiving lifesaving treatment merely because it is challenging or even painful; the same should be true for our healthcare system. Our nation has backed away from healthcare reform before, and we're worse for it. We can't let it happen again.

I'll close with a scare tactic that's actually grounded in truth: Doing nothing is the worst option.

Philip Pizzo is dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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