The Public Policy

Wicked, Lazy Servants

The federal government should clean up its own Medicare mess before taking on the entire health care system.

By 8.17.09

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The New Testament book of Matthew contains a well-known allegorical tale known as the "Parable of the Talents." In this story, Jesus told of a man who entrusted his property to three servants while he was away. One servant was given five silver talents; another two; and a third one. The first two servants put that which their master had given them to good use, and doubled his money while he was away. The third servant, who had been given but one talent, buried the valuable quantity of silver to preserve it until his master returned, neither risking its safety nor putting it to good use while its owner was away.

Upon his return, the two servants who had taken that which he had entrusted them with and used it wisely during his absence presented their master with their earnings. He replied to each, "Well done, my good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things."

The third servant, who had merely protected that portion of his master's wealth with which he had been entrusted, presented the single talent upon the man's return. Seeing this, the master flew into a rage, chastising the "wicked, lazy servant" for allowing cowardice and irresponsibility to prevent his putting the master's money to good use and ordering the servant to surrender his talent to the servant who had proved his resourcefulness and trustworthiness by doubling his master's five talents.

The moral of this New Testament parable -- be a good steward of a little and you will be trusted with more, but poor stewardship will lose you the privilege of being trusted with anything in the future -- is recalled to mind by the federal government's current attempt to take over the American health care system. The 33 years Medicare has been in existence have provided the federal government with an opportunity to demonstrate what type of steward its legislators and bureaucrats will be of a national health care program millions of Americans are trusting for their coverage and care.

"Medicare is… a government-run health care plan that people are very happy with," said President Obama, at a late July town hall meeting in an effort to defend Medicare as a popular and successful example of government health care at its best.

A simple look at the numbers is enough to rebuff Obama's claim that the program is an example of the federal government being a good steward of American health care dollars and coverage, while also serving to demonstrate the government's inability to accurately predict the future costs of its programs (a very important fact to keep in mind in light of Congress' claims that a health care overhaul can be undertaken without costing future generations trillions).

At its inception in 1966, Medicare carried an annual price tag of $3 billion. Its Congressional founders predicted that cost would rise to $12 billion a year by 1990 -- a figure that accounted for inflation.

The true cost of Medicare is stunning. In 1990, rather than costing American taxpayers $12 billion, Medicare cost $107 billion -- an increase of 800% over the government's best guess at the program's cost 23 years before. That cost has increased exponentially as the years have passed since 1990. This year, $484 billion will be spent on mandatory Medicare outlays; by 2018, that number will be $885.1 billion, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. The total amount owed Medicare beneficiaries (American workers who are at least 22 years old and who have paid into the system, meaning they are due Medicare coverage upon retirement) is a staggering $32.3 trillion -- an amount over twice America's GDP, and nearly five times the publicized national debt.

The fact that the federal government has allowed a key health coverage program with which it has been entrusted to fall over thirty trillion dollars in debt should send a powerful message about Washington's ability (or, more correctly, inability) to be a good steward of Americans' health care dollars and coverage.

Further, the fact that Congress has refused to do away with a law requiring seniors to enroll in Medicare or forfeit their Social Security benefits -- a regulation that is currently being challenged in federal court by a group of plaintiffs led by former Republican Congressman Dick Armey -- for fear of losing massive numbers of seniors to private health coverage serves to reinforce both the undesirability of the government-run program. It also demonstrates the federal government's willingness, when given the opportunity, to force citizens onto the rolls of government care by denying them the opportunity to choose their coverage.

Medicare, the chief example of health care as run by the federal government, is an utter mess that is losing doctors, resorting to anti-choice laws to keep seniors enrolled, and hemorrhaging taxpayer dollars by the trillions. President Obama and his allies in the Democratic-led Congress should demonstrate their ability to be good stewards of the people's health care dollars and coverage by fixing their own Medicare mess before they seek to expand their grip on America's health care system as a whole.

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About the Author

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran, is a columnist, a combat journalist, and a director emeritus of conservative weblog RedState.com.