Health Care: Robbers in White Coats

Consider the case of an American making minimum wage who has a toothache and discovers he needs a root canal. At present, the average American dentist charges about $1,800 for a root canal and crown to cover the tooth. To save one tooth it will cost anyone making the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr. about 250 hours to earn that much money, and the procedure will take the dentist about 2 hours. Of course, at minimum wage no one can support themselves to begin with, so such people have no way to pay. For someone making twice the amount of minimum wage, 2 hours at the dentist can cost that person 3 to 6 months of all their discretionary spending.

Anyone who doesn't pay the money will be in severe pain and their appearance will be disfigured. The same conditions would apply if facing a hoodlum carrying a tire iron in a dark alley - pay the money or else.

Several years ago someone I know had a heart attack, and a few weeks later similar symptoms occurred so he went back to the hospital. All they did was hook him up to a monitor for an hour and sent him home $1,000 poorer.

Another acquaintance cut through the tendon of his little finger while at home. Because he had no medical insurance, the doctors refused to reattach the tendon without paying a $1,000 cash deposit toward the $5,000, two hour, outpatient operation. Not having the money, he resigned himself to spending the rest of his life with a maimed hand. He also lost his job because he could no longer work as a result of the injury. Fortunately, in this particular case a relative came up with the money for the operation, but not all of us are so lucky.

A few years ago the mother of a friend married a man who is now 69 years old. A year ago he started having health problems and it took a year of endless medical tests to discover he has a clogged artery in his brain. In spite of having Medicare and a supplemental insurance policy which is supposed to cover what Medicare does not, they have already been charged over $40,000 which they paid using credit cards. Add in the cost of the upcoming brain surgery and it is certain they will go bankrupt. Because my friend's mother married a man who became ill she will lose her home, and my friend will lose her inheritance. That's two people who didn't get sick who will suffer devastating financial loss so doctors and hospitals can make millions.

If you have a job which provides good medical insurance, pray that you don't end up unemployed in an economy where similar employment is simply unavailable, or pain and disfigurement, even death, may be options you also face. We are revolted by ancient civilizations like the Aztecs who sacrificed thousands of people to maintain the status quo in their society, yet we sacrifice tens of thousands of Americans who die each year as a result of not having medical insurance. In the U.S. there are forty-nine million people without medical coverage, and the absence of a national health care system which regulates prices has turned medical professionals into millionaire extortionists. We are the only industrialized country without universal health care, and the cost of medical care here has risen at far more than the rate of inflation for decades. The quality of medical care in the US is rated at a dismal 17th in the world, and medical bills are the number one cause of bankruptcy in this country. In other developed countries no one goes bankrupt due to medical bills.

One analogy for this situation would be a bridge called Life that spans a bottomless chasm, where the bridge is often icy and the wind always blows. It is inevitable that all of us will at one time or another be blown off the side of the bridge where we desperately grip the broken railing. Medical people are like robbers in white coats, who did nothing to put us in our precarious position, but walk the length of the bridge carrying a rope they can use to help people back up to safety. But before they help you they ask how much your life is worth to you, because that is how much they will charge. It's the same question a robber with a gun would ask, but the robber only takes what you have on you, while doctors and hospitals will take everything you have spent your entire life earning.

It doesn't have to be this way.

From my encounters with pre-med students in college I realized they are not the smartest, brightest flowers of the bunch. Most are just people like everyone else, cramming for exams between parties simply to pass the tests rather than to retain the information, with many of them studying medicine only to acquire the wealth and status of being a doctor. No doubt many American physicians are highly skilled, competent individuals, but there are others whose primary concern is gaining wealth and their diagnostic skills are often biased toward ordering medications and procedures which result in greater income.

An enlightened social system would provide free education to anyone who wants it because education is a basic necessity. If people studying to work in critical professions were actually paid to go to school there would never be a shortage of qualified professionals willing to work for high but reasonable wages. Those individuals who have a natural desire to work in healing professions, but presently can not afford the many years of required education, would be drawn into the field and the quality of service would actually improve. There would be sufficient staff in hospitals so that emergency doctors would not be required to work thirty-six hour shifts and the shortage of nurses would disappear. The motivation of these individuals would not be to make millions of dollars but to provide quality healing services and make a very good living at it. At the same time the cost of health care to society would drop dramatically, perhaps as much as fifty percent once the unbelievable profits built into the cost of pharmaceutical drugs are also removed.

Free health care would also enable people to take more preemptive health measures, such as having regular physical and dental exams, while free education would allow people to take yoga or other exercise classes and learn more regarding alternative health systems. People would be healthier in general as a result, further reducing health care costs.

The Clintons and Obama both tried to introduce universal care in the US, but the health care industry spent tens of millions making sure it didn't happen. It may be enlightening to watch the documentary "Obama's Deal" produced by Frontline for PBS. It shows how the insurance industry killed the public option and insisted that everyone be forced to buy insurance via the "individual mandate" - which is why so many people are opposed to "Obama Care."

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