It’s good to have someone to set you back a bit, reminding you to go at first questions, rather than the ephemeral political debate. Loyal Achates, who can be found here, had the following comment on one of the posts about health insurance reform over at neo’s
Loyal Achates Says:It’s a very fair question. Even with the disclaimers that people can pretend anything on the internet and leave out important information, it remains true that there are people in situations much like this in our country. In fact, everywhere in the world. (And besides, I tend to think LA is truthful on this anyway.)
You know what? I’m one of the evil young people you’ve been talking about, and a leftist, and a supporter of health care reform. I do think it didn’t go far enough in extending universal coverage but I am willing to accept it as a step forward.
You know what else? I was born with a pre-existing condition - specifically, Tetralogy of Fallot. no insurance company in America will cover me, and my cardiologist tells me I’m going to need regular surgeries just to stay alive.
Would I be ‘free’ in a country where I was simply left to die because I couldn’t, at the age of 24, scrape together the $100,000 needed for the operation and subsequent hospital stay? You tell me.
Here’s my worry: Loyal Achates isn’t so much unusual as he is a canary in the mine. Health care costs are rising, not because of inefficiency or heartless business practices or stunning malpractice claims – though these all deserve significant attention – but because the products and services provided simply are very expensive. And they are going to get more expensive - much, much more expensive – for the foreseeable future. We can do magical things we were never able to do. We can keep people alive (such as a family friend with CF) far longer than we could. We can save people who simply died not very long ago. And it costs a fortune.
A little background on the American way of dealing with this. I was going to call this an interpolated palimpsest, but that's not quite accurate, and just pretend. (An example of the use of of interpolated palimpsest in context, from one of my favorite books. Scroll down to Test Paper I.)
The real division occurs because this post is too long, and I wanted to create a break somewhere. Here is good. Go get coffee or something.
The old method, still the norm in poor countries, is that you purchase the medical care, get some person or persons to purchase it for you, or you go without, with full consequences: blindness, incapacity, death. Who was expected to help you with this varied from place to place, but it was a much more restricted group than now. Your immediate family might be expected to impoverish themselves if necessary. Extended family, church, or neighborhood might have some expected moral (though not legal) obligation, which they might fulfill with contributions, organizing benefits, or providing care. The larger community had little expected responsibility. This was only a century ago. All those children’s books, plays, and movies about little Elizabeth who needed “an operation,” or “a specialist in New York,” and was languishing in misery as the family strained to be able to afford such a thing, was not so long ago.
The somewhat new method is that we spread the cost out over a large number of people, either through private health insurance or government provision. As rare conditions are by definition rare, it was thought to be fairer to be a society where everyone chips in to provide for the few who were in dire situations through no observable fault of their own.
Somewhere between these two methods was the foundation of hospitals, often by religious groups, which provided some free or reduced-fee care. Hospitals tend to be part of large health-care industry groups or attached to colleges (themselves often religiously founded) now, but we can still detect that solution through their names: Beth Israel, St. Mary’s, Baptist Hospital. No one was legally required to be generous, but it was a social expectation that all would be as generous as they could. Americans, especially religious Americans, considered it part of their self-definition to be open-handed.
For many reasons, some good, some bad, this has gradually shaded into government provision of many helps that were once voluntary charity. The lines are not sharp here. American colonial communities recognised some obligation to the poor in their midst, and towns, not churches even when the two were virtually interchangeable, would vote public funds for poor farms, doctors, hospitals. Through long eras when the great majority of citizens belonged to a formal religious group with might provide a conduit for giving, they allocated some of their giving via taxation, insisting on the generosity rather than leaving it to generous feeling. But in the end, it was the same amount of money for the community as a whole.
Did the Catholic voters fear the Methodist churchgoers wouldn’t pony up? I jest. The idea has grown in America that the government is the primary expression of the community’s values. This sense has increased rapidly as people stopped going to church, which is why secularists are far more likely to regard government help as the defining item in whether a community is generous or not. Those who regard the government as an impersonal hired entity don’t see it that way.
Despite the political rhetoric, most Americans have some of both values operating, and we are fighting over How much is enough/how much is too much? We have always had a mixed socialist/free market system. Until comparatively recently, almost no Americans thought that the common weal - in our current narrow sense of equalisation - was the dominant reason for government. But neither has "rugged individualism" been so central as we imagine. The frontier peoples banded together as soon as they could. The phrase does not seem to occur until the early 20th C. The conflict of values also brings in other, messier questions: If the government expresses the will of the people in charity, isn’t it just as fair that it express the will of the people in definition of marriage or beginning of life? An interesting philosophical question – and part of why we have a Constitution.
End of Interpolated Palimpsest. Back to our regularly-scheduled programming.
So the newest method, much present in America but more pronounced in other industrialised nations, is that the cost of everything is spread out over everyone. In theory, anyway. To the government-as-expression people, this seems the only fair way. There are half-a-dozen enormous questions in the health care debate, including what “everything” is and who “everyone” is; who is allowed to make money and how much; does gifting improve the general morals and/or does it promote the deterioration of responsibility.
But all these questions are going to be swamped under the practical consideration that will force re-examination. Health care costs are rising, and will rise no matter what we do or who is in charge. We can be efficient, preventative, empirically-driven, and wise to slow this, but we will not prevent it. We are moving into a time when every family has a Loyal Achates at some point, and then into a time when a majority of us come up against the need for a medical treatment beyond the means of any but the wealthiest to afford. Whether we’re paying for that out-of-pocket or just tossing in a co-pay while we all share the burden, as medical care improves, half of the citizenry (er, residents) will require something that costs two years’ salary to effect. The cost will not go away just because people deserve the care.
I very much hope to be wrong on this. Perhaps some truly magical medical advances will turn out to be cheap. Perhaps we will culturally decide that most of us don’t want to live beyond 100 anyway, and palliative care become the norm beyond 80. But more likely, a lot of us are going to want to live to 120 if we can, and if an expensive procedure is needed at 75 we will insist it be performed. And then get a few others at 90 and 110.
If you want to see a hockey-stick graph that’s real, don’t go to environmental sites, go to the health-cost info. It’s not just machinery and medicines, but skilled people putting in time. Obama’s opponents have complained “where is the money going to come from?” It’s a fair question, but it is going to come anyway, Obamacare or no. Unless our robot doctors and nurses become really good, really fast.