Guest opinion: Congress must help, not harm, rural health care

Matthew Call

Utah’s health care system is in rough shape. We rank 43rd in the nation for the number of doctors per capita. We have the 4th most overworked physicians in America, and we’re losing more and more doctors to retirement every year. Many of our counties rank high for premature deaths, and we are suffering a suicide epidemic with few mental health professionals to help. 

If this were a medical drama on television, we’d be grabbing the paddles to resuscitate the patient. Instead, Congress may open a new and deeper wound. 

The timing could not be worse for a serious government misstep on health care. Communities across rural Utah face the same onrushing challenges. The population is aging, and more chronic disease, more infant mortality, and more deaths from accidents and injuries are cutting short too many lives. 

We’ve got good people in a bad situation steadily losing their access to care, and it’s the same nationwide. An estimated 50 million rural Americans reside in “health care shortage areas,” where the numbers of paramedics, doctors, surgeons, and hospitals are at 20-year lows. 

Given this backdrop, it is incumbent upon lawmakers to first do no harm. We’ve seen what happens when this tenet is ignored, as with the travesty of the Affordable Care Act. 

Now proposed legislation being pushed as a way to protect families from unexpected medical bills would if enacted, mark the next great federal intrusion into health care. The idea isn’t being championed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, either, although it does take a page from her socialist playbook. Surprisingly, a plan centered on government-mandated price controls is being backed by several prominent Republicans. 

Let me say here that I have the greatest respect for members of Congress who want to find a solution to surprise billing. Health plans’ in-network versus out-of-network machinations are confusing and anti-patient. Many families wind up being charged exorbitantly for care that should have been covered for a few dollars. They deserve help. 

Where I differ is on the economics. I simply don’t believe that artificial, government-mandated prices can lower costs over the long-term or improve a malfunctioning market. 

On the first point, the Congressional Budget Office agrees—they forecast rising health care prices under this plan. On the latter, history is an unsympathetic judge. Since at least Roman times, politicians have imposed price controls only to causes shortages, rationing, riots, and chaos. Americans have witnessed the effects from afar, in the former USSR, Cuba, and most recently Venezuela. The impacts are always catastrophic and importing them into our health care system would be a mistake. 

Federal Medicare rates are already so low that two-thirds of doctors’ practices lose money caring for America’s seniors. Imagine the consequences if similar financial pressures reach more of the market. Physicians, clinics, and hospitals holding on with razor-thin margins would be forced to close. Rural residents would hear even more of the same, “not accepting new patients,” and “the next available appointment is in April.” Distances traveled to obtain care would stretch, and delayed diagnosis and treatment would compromise health, well-being, and lifespans. 

Rural America is tired of being left behind. With this surprise billing legislation, Utah’s basic medical needs would be ignored, again. I ask Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney to do everything possible to halt this price control plan and help redirect the attention of their Republican colleagues in the Senate to the crucial task of rebuilding our rural health care system on the free market principles we hold dear.