Reforming the U.S. health-care industry may be a nearly impossible task, but steadily rising costs demand action now.
The problem is critical, especially to many plastics processors that have struggled through the recent recession while still trying to maintain decent health coverage for their employees. Health-care costs nationwide rose 11 percent last year, and some estimates project more double-digit annual increases in the future.
Small and medium-size manufacturers are among those being hit the hardest. A survey from the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers found that one-third of them are seeing costs rise at least 20 percent a year.
Few companies can manage that kind of increase.
The bad news: Americans ask a lot from the health-care industry, and they're not likely to give up much without a fight:
* They want to be able to go to their family physician, as well as whatever specialist they (or the family doctor) deem necessary.
* They want to have a say in the medicines they use and the procedures they undergo - whether it's the newest prescription drug or the latest in magnetic resonance imaging.
* They want service 24 hours a day, even if it means visiting the emergency room on a Sunday afternoon for an ear infection.
* They (or at least their lawyers) want to keep the ability to sue doctors and hospitals for malpractice, with no limits on liability.
The good news, though, is there are plenty of reformers with promising ideas. The concept that has the most momentum right now has to do with a somewhat cloudy term that's already familiar to processors: quality.
The idea is simple: Save money by applying cost-management principles to health care. For example, a recent series in the Chicago Tribune concluded that 75,000 people died in the United States in 2000 as a result of ``unsanitary facilities, germ-laden instruments, unwashed hands and other lapses.''
Also, a major study by the Midwest Business Group on Health, a coalition of employers in 11 states, found that poor-quality health care in the United States is costing nearly $400 billion a year, or about 30 percent of the national health-care tab.
No one is going to be opposed to getting health-care workers to clean up their act. But reforming the health-care bureaucracy will mean making some tough choices, too.
When it comes to really cutting fat, we like the radical change advocated by Martin Kellogg, president of injection molder UFE Inc. in Stillwater, Minn., and chairman of the Citizens' Council on Health Care, a private foundation that advocates free-market-type reform.
One of his suggestions: Pay employees more, but let them be more responsible for their own health-care costs. Some will choose to keep their platinum-plated medical plans, while others will prefer to keep the cash and find a way to get by without the latest drugs and most convenient care.
Personal responsibility sure has a lot more promise than a government takeover of the health-care industry. We're just afraid that unless the industry reforms itself and gets costs under control soon, there will be pressure for more regulation.
We don't think more government regulation will bring either lower costs or higher-quality care.