One More Time…

Let me try to explain this again. American medical care is expensive for everyone because the costs are shifted from one set of consumers to another. Most of us are not sick and except for the odd hospitalization for something unexpected don’t really require that much doctoring. There is, however, a small but significant subset of the population who use a terrifically disproportionate amount of health care. I write about this group extensively on my blog and they include the living dead vegetating in pre-death staging areas nursing homes, the multiply comorbid, and people who make bad lifestyle choices resulting in a state of perpetual symbiosis with the local hospital. Upon this group of people is brought to bear the full might of our technologically sophisticated but extremely expensive medical arsenal.

I treated a 79-year-old man the other day who has, I kid you not, eight stents in his coronary arteries, a history of three pulmonary emoblisms (emboli?), a greenfield fiter in his unamputated leg, diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, renal failure, a colostomy, a PEG tube, senile dementia, emphysema, and a string of minor strokes before the Big One that knocked out what looked like the entire left hemisphere of his brain. I have no doubt that the cost of his health care just in the last few years would be enough to pay for the health insurance of an entire Cuban province and probably runs into the millions of dollars, not one cent of which he or his family have paid or even expect to pay because you are picking up the tab with your outrageous health insurance premiums and twenty-dollar aspirins. Maintaining an ICU bed, for example, costs a typical hospital several thousand dollars a day and this gentlemen has spent months in the ICU while his family urges us to keep his heart beating regardless of the cost.
In Europe, this patient would have died fifteen years ago, probably after his first heart attack. Maybe he would have gotten the first heart catheterization, maybe he wouldn’t, but as his comorbidities snowballed the Freeloader Kingdoms would have cut their losses and, while advanced treatments are theoretically available, the reality of rationed care would have finished him off. A Greek doctor of my acquaintance related to me that even what we consider routine critical care would be considered extremely heroic and almost unheard of over there.
The argument goes that if this poor son of a bitch only had access to good primary care he wouldn’t have found himself in these dire straits requiring this level of care. Putting aside the obvious fact that many such patients in the United States have had excellent access to primary care (many of my ICU patients are retired from GM), and the dubious belief that primary care will keep people from cramming the metaphorical pie into their notional gob-holes, let’s asume that cheap primary care would have made this guy well and allowed him to live comfortably and productively into his golden years requiring nothing but a couple of inexpensive pills and a few doctor’s visits to manage relatively benign complications of his well-controlled medical problems. If this is the case and if all that is required to make the United States a Cuban-style health care paradise is cheap primary care, why should the government have to pay for it at all? In other words, if it’s cheap, why can’t people buy it themselves? A doctor’s visit here or there and a few pills probably costs less than most people spend on cable television. I know for a fact that one of my frequent patients can afford a thirty dollar a day marijuana habit (but won’t scrape together a couple of bucks for antibiotics at the local Wal Mart which practically gives away a long list of generic drugs) so a couple hundred a year for his doctor visits is a trivial amount.

Primary care is cheap. It’s so cheap that it makes no sense giving it away for free, particularly when to give it away is going to require the massive bureacracy typical of all government solutions, a bureacracy that will inevitably stifle everything that is good about American medicine and turn us into just another society with excellent access to health care unless you really get sick at which point it is hasta la vista, baby. For the sake of your fear of cutting into your blunt money, you are willing to turn over close to twenty percent of the economy to people whose only talent is that they have no talent for anything but government.
Still, nothing is really going to change. All we’ll be doing is throwing bad money before good because while a small percentage of patients who are destined for the comorbidity jackpot may have a come to Jesus moment where they decide to modify their behavior, most will continue as if nothing happened and arrive on schedule, after hitting all the expensive milestones, to thier fabulous yet terminal month in the ICU.

It’s not as if the public will actually accept rationing of care for their demented granny. Any politician who suggests that to control costs we need to put her down like a dog (so to speak) is destined to go down in flames. What is will happen is that we will continue to spend fantastic amounts of money on health care and when the numbers get too alarming, measures will be taken to control costs that, by removing the incentive for productivity, will make the problem worse.

Or Look At it Like This…

Consider the American military in comparison to the typical European military. The American military is an expensive, technologically sophisticated organization that is twenty or thirty years ahead of anything the Europeans can field. We almost can’t share the same battlefield because of the speed and sophistication of American weapons, command and control, intelligence, and logistics. The American military can do things and go places. The Europeans have difficulty doing anything including finding reasons to maintain the militaries that they have.

But the Europeans do spend less and they do get whatever it is they want from their armed forces. And yet the capability to transport a couple of Marine Regimental Combat Teams or an Army Armored Brigade anywhere in the world on short notice doesn’t come cheap, nor are carrier battle groups operated on a shoestring. You get what you pay for. A primary care military with conscripted soldiers who don’t expect to do much is fairly inexpensive and looks pretty good until you have to make it do something. A working war machine isn’t pretty and to make it do something requires the dedication of motivated troops and frightening amounts of money.

Life Expectency

With the exception of Japan, the average life expectency of every country in the developed world hovers around 80 years. The average life expectency in the United States is 78 years. In the European Union it is about 79 years. The difference is nothing to get excited about and seems to be unrelated to per capita expenditure on health care. Those cheese eating surrender monkeys (the French I mean) may be healthier than Americans but they only live, on average, a couple of years longer than we do. It may be true that they only spend half on a per capita basis what we spend on health care but perhaps past a certain point there is no relationship between life expectancy and health care expeditures. Sure, you’re screwed if you’re from Namibia (average life expectancy of 40 years) but you’d be hard pressed to make the case that we get all all that much of a bang for our bucks or that European health care is better based on a a few months difference in life expectency.
I mean, the Albanians spend next to nothing on health care (36 bucks per head per year) and they still live almost as long as the typical citizen of the European Union. How on Earth is this possible? Albania is a shit hole. The only Third World country in Europe. Do French politicians propose that the EU go to the Albanian system to save money?

Perhaps because life expectency in part depends on cultural factors which have nothing to do with the medical care, it is a poor indicator for its quality. I have travelled extensively in Europe and I have never seen anything remotely close to the five and six hundred pound behemoths that hardly raise an eyebrow in our hospital. But this is more a result of the thirty buffet-style restaurants within two miles of the place than some hard-to-define shortcoming of our health care system. I know for a fact that many of these monsters will enjoy terrific access to health care untill the day their bad heath finally catches up to them and they become a statistic dragging down our average life expectency. If you look at it this way, and factor in things like gang violence which decreases the life expectency of black men to 67 years, the premature babies who we try to save at gestational ages which would make the Europeans laugh contemptuously, and half a dozen other cultural factors which have nothing to do with health insurance it is a wonder that we live, on average, as long as we do. Apparently, for every Tupac harvested early to the Lord we have a ninety-year-old vegetable sucking life through plastic tubes bringing up our average.

Addendum: I propose the following thought experiment. I live in an average Midwest city with a population of around 200,000. Let us charter a bunch of airplanes and exchange the non-medical population of the city with the population of a similar-sized French city, say Toulon. Let us then follow the two cities for the next couple of years and see how they fare in regard to health care costs. I predict the following: We will get a much deserved vacation, working at our hospital will be a cake walk, and those poor French bastards will reap the adipose whirlwind as their health care costs skyrocket and they feverishly brush up on their atrophied critical care skills. Either that or when we switch back we are going to be minus a lot of our citizens.
Next: The annual “Welcome to Intern Year” article. I promise.

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