On Viagra and the Cost of Health Care

The next time Madisonians hear about how politically wacky their community is, they may want to remind their accusers of this choice tidbit involving the Milwaukee Public Schools: the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, the public school teacher's union in Milwaukee, has filed a civil suit that claims the school district's exclusion of Viagra and similar drugs from its health insurance plans is discriminatory on the basis of sex.

This news came as quite a shock to beleaguered taxpayers on several levels. In my case, I thought that MPS had outlawed the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

All jokes aside, and comedians everywhere could have a field day with this one, the fact that such medically unnecessary drugs were covered at all makes an often overlooked point about the cost of health care, which affects access to health insurance, which affects an employer's ability to provide coverage to employees.

I realize that this is was a typically richer public-sector benefit, but is it any wonder why health insurance coverage is so expensive in this country when basic policies cover wants in addition to actual medical needs? Congressional leaders are prepared to advance a $26 billion bill, purportedly to help states avoid layoffs for key public employees, including teachers. I'm all for that as long as the money truly goes to save teaching, police, and firefighter jobs, and as long as some of the unused TARP money is used to pay for it. But in the back of my mind, I wonder how much of that money is going for medical wants.

We would have much more affordable heath care if people paid for such wants out of their own pocket rather than making the rest of us pony up. That's true under the health care system we are abandoning, and it will be true under the system that's unfolding, a system in which the federal government will have greater control over what gets covered and what does not.

Forget the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association's argument that denying coverage for Viagra and similar drugs constitutes sex discrimination. Attorneys are part of the creative class, and legal arguments simply don't get any more creative than this one. If taxpayers are paying the bills, they have every right to demand their hard-earned money is spent intelligently. It will be interesting to see how much intelligence exists in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, which is where this case has been appealed after MPS's denial of coverage was upheld by the state's Labor and Industry Review Commission.

Kudos to the folks on the Commission, and a semi-kudos to MPS. It took a recession-induced budget crisis for the district to straighten up and fly right on this issue, but it finally realized the $786,000 that could be saved from denying this benefit would be better spent on classroom instruction.

Duh, you think?

Tellingly, I haven't spoken to many business people who are confident the new health care law will control costs, which along with greater access should have been the key reasons for health care reform. One can only imagine the public outrage of a system in which the government green lights things like Viagra for a 50-year-old man, and denies coverage for a 70-year-old woman who needs a hip replacement. If critics of Medicare cuts are right about the new law's impact, that's the kind of nightmare scenario that could happen.

Far fetched, you say? Not if you're actually paying attention to what's going on in this crazy, mixed-up world, and this Milwaukee story is about as mixed up as it gets.

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