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For days, we have watched an unreal performance in which 100 supposedly lucid senators who are supposed to have sense enough to come in out of the rain debated a minor health care reform as if it were a brawl about the survival of life on Earth.

The fine points are about whether patients can sue their HMOs in federal courts or in state courts. When it's all over, the health care system of this country still will be a costly monstrosity. The only thing abundantly clear will be that the HMOs own a vast piece of George W. Bush's administration and were determined to get their money's worth.

What's so unreal about this process is that we already have a working model of a health care system that does work. It's called Medicare.

When's the last time you heard a geezer complain about his Medicare coverage, other than wishing it included a prescription-drug benefit? As an incipient geezer, I can assure you these are folks not afraid to whine about what they want.

Still, the critics insist the health care system will fall apart if Congress approves a patients' bill of rights with teeth in it, that costs will rise and employers will be driven to abandon coverage of their workers. Only a senator from Mars could fail to see that it has already fallen apart, that millions of Americans are without coverage, that costs are out of control.

Meanwhile, the employers of this nation have a valid complaint. The enlightened ones who do subsidize health care coverage of their workers are getting stuck with crushing annual increases in their health care costs that far exceed increases in their wage costs. They have every right to feel like chumps when they see there are companies to whom a gravely sick employee is merely an occasion to call in somebody else to cook the french fries.

Someday, it will occur to the Senate that this whole process is merely a race to see which will come first: Either employers will stop subsidizing health care coverage, dump it entirely, or they will come to their senses and demand that the federal government assume this burden.

There is, after all, nothing in the Constitution that creates an artificial bond between workers and their health care.

In this legislative death struggle, Republicans and Democrats nimbly switch sides on the critical question of whether HMOs can be sued in state courts where chances of redress are better. This finds people such as Trent Lott, R-Miss., championing the weird idea that suits in state courts are an abomination and should be outlawed. This is a curious idea for a man sensitive to the sovereignty of a state such as Mississippi, which in his own lifetime fought a second Civil War for the supremacy of its courts and their right to suppress black people.

The absurdity of Lott's arguments remind of when Bob Dole was running for president and embarrassed himself by claiming that, if Pizza Hut were forced to provide even minimal medical coverage for its employees, pizzas would cost $20.


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