Who will be hurt the most by the health reform legislation Congress passed last year?
Answer: The most vulnerable segments of society: the poor, the elderly and the disabled. That’s right. Virtually everyone in Congress who is left-of-center voted for a law that will significantly decrease access to care for the people they claim to care most about.
Why isn’t anyone writing about this?
Answer: Because almost all the people who write about health care know almost nothing about economics.
Basically, there are two ways to reform health care. One way is top down. The other is bottom up. The latter is based on the economic way of thinking. The former rejects that way of thinking. The latter gets the economic incentives right for all the individual actors, leaving the social result largely unpredictable. The former starts with a social goal and tries to impose it from above, leaving individuals with perverse incentives to undermine it. The latter depends for its success on people acting in their self-interest. The former depends for its success on preventing people from acting in their self-interest.
I think I can probably count on the fingers of two hands the number of people in health policy who accept the economic way of thinking. All the rest — 99.9% of the total, including a lot of people with “Ph.D., economist” after their names — reject it in spades.
As a physician who works at Grady Memorial Hospital, I am regularly reminded of the implications of poor access to health care.
One of my regular patients had been suffering from diabetes and hypertension for five years. She was a single, dedicated mother who had been working long hours at a local grocery store to provide for her 15-year-old daughter. She understood that good health meant that she could perform better at work, and the earnings she received from her work would help her provide a stable home for her daughter. Therefore, she did whatever it took to keep herself healthy — monitored her diet, took her medicines diligently and visited the physician regularly.
Things changed one day when during one of her visits to my clinic she said, “Doc, I just lost my job. I don’t have insurance anymore. Medicaid denied me coverage even though they said it was OK for my daughter to have insurance. I can’t pay my co-pays to see you anymore. I may not see you next time.” I was horrified.
A mother who wanted nothing more than to be as healthy as possible for her child should be able to receive care. The health care system in our country that should be serving patients exactly like this one is preventing patients from receiving the care they need and deserve.
In many cases, access to health care coverage is not within the control of patients nor their physicians, resulting in significant consequences. That is, if they don’t obtain coverage, many of our patients will succumb to their (many preventable) illnesses if they don’t have access to their physicians or cannot pay for their medications. My patient’s future could be a testimony to this.
What further confounded me was that Medicaid denied my patient.
Last week, the fire department of a small town in Tennessee called South Fulton ignored the call of a man who needed help quelling a fire near his house. The firefighters declined lending a hand because the caller neglected to pay a $75 bill, the prerequisite for deserving assistance. The caller tried to put down the fire with a garden hose, but after two hours, his house caught on fire. When the property of a neighbor who had paid the $75 became threatened by the flames, the gallant firemen promptly answered the call of duty. The brave public servants prevented the flames from spreading to the property of their responsible contributor, carefully avoiding to suppress the conflagration’s source. Someone has to teach a lesson to the free-loaders in our society, explains a high-minded commentator.
Our health care system works exactly like South Fulton’s worthy fire department: we are entitled to health care only if we have money or qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. If you don’t have money, your health entirely depends on the charity of health care providers, who, as our admirable firefighters, may refuse to help.
I wish to argue that, besides being cruel and inhumane, the “South Fulton health care model” is a latent threat to society. The cost and effort of preventive medicine and basic primary care (fire prevention, putting down a small fire) is less than dealing with instances of end-organ failure (a house in flames). Moreover, having uninsured people (not aiming water to the fire source) creates a constant economic liability to responsible costumers (the neighborhood). On the other hand, why should someone become a doctor, nurse, or health insurance company founder (a firefighter) without being an altruist? Do firefighters dream of wealth and leisure?
The costs of not doing anything about a burning house are always paid in full by society ―and some costs are not immediately apparent. Who loves the sight and smell of a charred landscape? Where will the man live now that he has no house? Will he react violently to the inaction of the firemen? Will the reputation of the fire department (and the city’s) go up in smoke?