Saturday, March 6, 2010

Aetna Welcomes You To The Grand Canyon!

Last summer as my wife and I hiked from rim to rim in the Grand Canyon, I found myself thinking about the powerful experience of walking through mile after mile of natural history. It turns out, I should have been thinking about health insurance. Here's why.
In the early days the Grand Canyon was pretty much private property. If you wanted to go down into it you had to buy a ticket from a tour operator who controlled access to it. If you couldn't afford a ticket you couldn't go down. Kind of like a toll bridge. Or, come to think of it, health insurance.
Then along came Teddy Roosevelt and the whole notion of national parks and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today if you want to see the Grand Canyon you can even stay in an incredible structure on the north rim that was originally built as part of Franklin Roosevelt's program to put people back to work at the time of the Great Depression. The CCC, the WPA, and other projects created by FDR resulted in work for the unemployed--and also the creation of some spectacular structures and works of art.
I thought about that legacy as I drove home from the Grand Canyon--on a freeway that was built as part of the National Defense Highway Act, a measure created under President Eisenhower.
What if, instead of having a federal highway administration, we'd just let private companies build the roads? They could lay them out as they wanted, and then we'd pay for the privilege of driving on them? Of course, they might not all match up. And some might be more expensive than others. But, hey, that's capitalism!
There'd been a bunch of tourists from Germany, France, Japan, even the Middle East at the Grand Canyon. I was betting they'd flown there.
What if we had competing private sector airports, each with its own privately held control towers? I wonder how safe that would be? At least it would open things up to competition! And if there were accidents, well, isn't that how the free market works?
Apparently we want national parks, and we want one highway system that is uniform, and we'd just as soon have a coordinated system for air safety.
But not for health. Or health care.
That's why we've got large insurance companies, like, say, Aetna, whose CEO, Ronald A. Williams, made $24.3 million in compensation last year. And $23 million the year before. For selling insurance.
Or Cigna's H. Edward Hanway, who made $12.2 million last year, and $25.8 million the year before that. For selling insurance.
Can you imagine what Mr. Williams could have made if, say, he ran the Grand Canyon? Or administered the free market in freeways?
He could have pulled down some really big bucks!
So remind me again: Why is there no public option for health insurance? And why is this industry, which is so fundamental to each American's health and well-being, allowed to operate with this kind of impunity?
I guess it's time for another hike in the Grand Canyon, and a chance to think some of these things over.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb