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Rand Paul's Dangerous Lasik Obsession

Senator Rand Paul has spent much of the August recess engaged in typical political activities—attending a roundtable on school reform, participating in a fundraiser for a fellow Republican, and speaking at a local ham breakfast. But Paul also set aside some time for one more unusual activity: Helping some people to see. Paul, an ophthalmologist, performed several eye surgeries. All of them were for patients who don't have insurance. And he donated his services for free.

I know what you’re thinking: Paul and his advisers decided to publicize his day of charity care, in order to create the impression that he’s a do-gooder. You’re probably right. I first learned about it from an article by Katrina Trinko of National Review, who was on the scene to write about it. So were some other reporters, including a television crew. They didn't get there by accident. But who cares? Maybe Paul was looking for good headlines or maybe he was trying to keep up his skills. (Senate rules prohibit him from maintaining a private practice while in office.) Regardless, Paul appears to have a genuine history of charity work: According to his official biography, he helped establish the Southern Kentucky Lions Eye Clinic and has won awards for his humanitarian work. Now, thanks to this latest surgical effort, a handful of people have better sight. Good for them and good for Rand Paul.

Of course, as Trinko’s story makes clear, Paul would have you believe that his good deeds—and his experience as a physician—justify his positions on health care policy. That’s another matter entirely. Paul is a well-known critic of government-run and government-regulated health care programs, starting with the Affordable Care Act. The opposition is in many ways philosophical: Nobody has a “right” to health care, he says, because that would mean people have a right to commandeer the labor of those who provide care. Trinko, in her article, quotes Paul explaining this position during a speaking event:

“As humans, yeah, we do have an obligation to give people water, to give people food, to give people health care,” Paul muses. “But it's not a right because once you conscript people and say, ‘Oh, it's a right,’ then really you're in charge, it's servitude, you're in charge of me and I'm supposed to do whatever you tell me to do. . . . It really shouldn't be seen that way.”

It’s a strange, almost nonsensical argument, for reasons that Paul Waldman notes at the American Prospect:

saying that health care is a right doesn't mean that doctors have to treat people without being paid, any more than saying that education is a right means that public school teachers have to work for free. Because we all agree that education is a right, we set up a system where every child can be educated, whether their families could afford to pay for it themselves or not. It doesn't mean that any kid can walk up to a teacher in the street and say, "I command you to teach me trigonometry for free. Be at my house at 9 tomorrow. You must do this, because I have a right to education and that means I am in charge of you and you're supposed to do whatever I tell you to do."

Of course, Paul is also making a practical argument. With less government interference and regulation, and more people paying for services directly rather than through insurance, the market would bring down prices on its own—and medical care would become more affordable for everybody. As proof, he points to a procedure ophthalmologists know well: Lasik, the laser eye surgery that eliminates the need for glasses or contact lenses. Via Trinko, again: 

“Insurance doesn’t cover Lasik surgery, the surgery to get rid of glasses,” Paul remarks. “So it started at about $2,000 an eye, maybe even $2,500 an eye, and it’s down in some communities to under $500 an eye because competition works and people call on average four doctors to get the price and see how much it’s going to cost.”

Libertarians and conservatives love to cite Lasik. But Lasik tells you almost nothing about the rest of the health care system, for reasons Jeff Levin-Scherz, a physician at the Harvard School of Public Health, has pointed out:

1. Lasik surgery is entirely elective.  No one NEEDS it!

2. Lasik surgery is never an emergency. Hence, it’s much more “shoppable” than most health care

3. Lasik surgery is highly automated—the computers actually do a substantial amount of the work. Therefore quality is more uniform than most health care

4. There is very high fixed cost for the Lasik laser—and the low variable cost makes it more likely that providers will price this at “marginal” cost—leading to large discounts. That’s not true of cognitive services. 

Ten extra visits with a neurologists cost almost ten times as much as a single visit given the large variable cost of the neurologist’s labor. Ten extra Lasik surgeries cost only a small amount more than a single surgery—since the cost of the ophthalmologist and technician is a relatively smaller portion of the total cost.

And that’s not to mention the fact that the Lasik market has been prone to more problems than promoters like Paul let on. Paul Ginsburg, the economist and president of the Center for the Study of Health Systems Change, testified about this some years ago:

LASIK has the greatest potential for effective price shopping because it is elective, non-urgent, and consumers can get somewhat useful price information over the telephone. Prices have indeed fallen over time. But consumer protection problems have tarnished this market, with both the Federal Trade Commission and some state attorneys general intervening to curb deceptive advertising and poorly communicated bundling practices. Many of us have seen LASIK advertisements for prices of $299 per eye, but in fact only a tiny proportion of consumers seeking the LASIK procedure meet the clinical qualifications for those prices. Indeed, only 3 percent of LASIK procedures cost less than $1,000 per eye, and the average price is about $2,000.

Mostly, though, the problem with Paul’s position on health care reform is the number of people it leaves out. Like every other Republican who has demanded repeal of Obamacare, he’s never proposed anything that would come close to covering as many people, or providing the same level of protection. On the contrary, he's proposed radical changes to Medicaid that would almost certainly even higher rates of uninsurance than exist today. 

According to Trinko’s article, one of the patients Paul treats is a 55-year-old woman. She says she has no insurance because it would cost her $700 a month—money that she doesn’t have. Under Obamacare, people in her position would be eligible for subsidies worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month—or they’d have a chance to enroll in Medicaid, as long as their state officials weren’t refusing to participate Obamacare’s expansion of the program.

Paul helped that woman to see. But if he has his way, millions of Americans in similar situations won’t be as lucky. They won’t have the same access to care or they’ll face financial ruin. Ultimately, what Paul does at a surgical center matters a lot less than what he does at the Capitol—or, potentially, the White House.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at the New Republic. Follow him on twitter @CitizenCohn