Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cash for Clunkers’ woes preview Obamacare

By Lynn Westmoreland

As Democratic members of Congress heard an earful over August from angry constituents worried about a government takeover of health care, hundreds of thousands of Americans were getting a sneak preview of what Obamacare might look like.

Washington, in its wisdom, instituted a seemingly simple Cash for Clunkers program, a plan so well known by Americans that it needs no further introduction.

The Cash for Clunkers window has closed now, of course, but its record of delays, paperwork, refusals, computer crashes and general red tape remained fresh in the memories of Americans as the president addressed the Congress this week to push his ideas for health care reform.

Without doubt, the president is the Democrats’ greatest messenger and he’s gifted in the art of persuasion. But the president doesn’t need to convince Americans that we have problems with our health care system. We could have all agreed on that long before he took up residence at the White House.

The president’s challenge is selling Americans on the dubious idea that the answer lies in a government takeover of the health care industry.

There are many legitimate reasons Americans from coast to coast flooded town hall meetings over August to voice their opposition. There are basic worries about bigger government, higher taxes and even larger federal deficits. Others wonder how an underfunded Medicare program could sustain $500 billion in cuts. But the main concern is intimately personal: Americans know a public option will undermine private insurance and lead to rationing, lower quality care and bureaucratic interference in the doctor-patient relationship.

It’s the latter concern where the Cash for Clunkers program could come into play.

At first, Congress appropriated $1 billion to provide a $4,500 incentive for Americans to trade in gas guzzlers for new, more fuel-efficient cars. This was supposed to rev up the ailing car dealers and auto manufacturers. (While almost 700,000 cars were bought through the program, this is a case of the government picking winners and losers. Cash for Clunkers merely pushed consumers to buy cars in lieu of other big purchases. Plus, dealers may face a dry spell after the taxpayer-subsided binge.)

The Department of Transportation this week will increase its work force for the program to 5,000, up from 3,000 last week, which was up from 1,100 public and private sector employees in mid-August. The bureaucracy keeps expanding.

What are these 5,000 new government workers doing? They’re processing the 27 million pages of paperwork generated by those nearly 700,000 car sales. A huge backlog formed waiting on the mere stamp of federal approval of the sale.

While many dealers appreciated the jump start on lagging sales, common complaints echoed nationwide: The government’s web site kept crashing, dealers couldn’t get their money from the Department of Transportation, their accountants were working around the clock to fill out the bounty of paperwork required on each car and 50 percent of applications were rejected. As of today (Sept. 10), only a little more than 40 percent of submissions have been paid.

Paperwork. Problems with payments to providers. Delays. Backups. New bureaucrats hired. The government picking winners and losers.

These things were bad enough when U.S. consumers were just looking for a good deal on a new car. What’s it going to be like when you need dialysis or a heart transplant?

President Obama’s effort to sell cars may give Americans extra pause as they watch him kick the tires on his health care plan.

Lynn Westmoreland (R-Grantville) represents Georgia’s 3rd Congressional District.
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