Tuesday, September 27 , 2016, 11:07 pm | Fair 67º

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Harris Sherline: Health-Care System Suffering Its Share of Ills

An article about Andy Rooney dying at age 92 in a hospital set me to wondering about our health-care system. At 92, why was he in the hospital at all? The article noted that he had been hospitalized with an undisclosed infection, which, on the surface, seems to explain why he was hospitalized.

Just about every pundit, columnist, journalist and talking head in America has commented about the problems with the nation’s health-care system. Since I ran a hospital for almost seven years during my career, I thought I would add my observations to the mix. So, here goes.

For openers, it occurs to me that our health-care system has become an unworkable patchwork of various types of health care, which includes hospitals, nursing homes, home health care and, of course, doctors and nurses. In general, for the most part they are all capable and deliver competent service. However, it’s the combination that makes me wonder.

Start with government regulation and bureaucratic oversight, which drive costs up, generally faster than the prevailing rate of inflation. In addition, it is reaching the point where many doctors are opting to retire early rather than continue dealing with it. Hospitals, of course, can’t “retire,” but they can and do go out of business. In the years that I was running the hospital in our local community (1988-1995), California hospitals were closing at the rate of one every three days.

What we have been hearing from politicians is that hospitals and doctors are greedy, that they overbill. It’s always easy for legislators, who know little or nothing about the practice of medicine or operating hospitals, to think they know how it should be done.

Perhaps the most vivid display of ignorance about health care was the statement made by President Barack Obama when he declared that doctors charged $50,000 to $70,000 for amputations when, in fact, the fee is more in the neighborhood of $750.

As Obamacare was debated and passed, most of us probably learned more about our health-care system than we probably wanted to know. But the genie is out of the bottle, and the situation has now become a major political issue.

Health care in America has irrevocably changed, and there’s no turning back as we move further into government-controlled health care.

During a recent visit to my cardiologist, he told me that he will soon be cutting back on the number of days that he will be working. His reason: Conditions have reached the point that he can no longer justify the time and effort it takes to practice, given all the regulatory oversight and bureaucratic mandates.

The number of doctors who are willing to continue practicing medicine with the threat of being charged unreasonable fines and penalties for even minor violations of some government regulation or mandate is driving increasing numbers of the medical profession out of the business.

Those who are close to retirement are no longer willing to continue to work, opting to retire, while many younger doctors are considering moving on to some other type of work, such as research or consulting, with decreasing numbers of practitioners being willing to continue to practice.

Many people have a distorted idea of just how much doctors earn, and almost no one seems to appreciate the fact that the practice of medicine is a business. Like all service businesses, medical offices have significant overhead and personnel costs. In addition to the nurses and other staff support people, they also must pay rent, telephone and supplies, taxes and the host of other expenses that any other business does.

If we continue to permit politicians to play politics with health care, we risk further downgrading health-care services in this country.

It’s time to wake up and stop letting politicians continue to politicize health care for political advantage.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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