Patients pay me
Well indeed;
Getting tests
That they don’t need.

In most countries, health care is aimed at curing the sick. Here, not so much. In the United States, health care is a profit center, one of our nation’s few growth industries. Young people are wisely counseled to pursue health-related careers. As a service, it’s harder to ship overseas.

But unlike other countries, where the patient is the focus, here the corporate owners are. If you don’t believe me, please ask United Health CEO Stephen Hemsley. He pocketed $102 million in total compensation in 2010, so he should know.

Even local health care can be a racket. No, probably not your own general practitioner who deals with your broken toe and that persistent gout. The profiteers are the clever MDs and hospitals who set up testing clinics to X-ray and CT-scan us to death, and to perform marginal surgical procedures. That’s where the money is. And since Medicare and HMOs seem willing to pay for just about anything, entrepreneurs will test and operate for just about anything. It’s no skin off your doctor’s nose. If you’re lucky enough to be insured, he knows you won’t have to pay for it yourself — insurers will.

(twbuckner / Flickr)

(twbuckner / Flickr)

The major downside of this greed-based system is that health insurance is now so costly that too many of us can’t afford it. The ranks of uninsured Americans have swollen to 50 million. One might argue that any system that leaves out 50 million of us isn’t really a system at all. It’s a racket.

This racket provides cozy income to the few at the top while abusing the poorly paid health aides at the bottom. It consigns vast swaths of the population to inadequate care. There may be some other modern country that also allows this, but none springs to mind.

What do our legions of truly selfless health professionals do to compensate? They volunteer at clinics. Some serve schools, others veterans, still others poor neighborhoods. And when that’s not enough, uninsured folks flock to the steadily diminishing number of hospital emergency rooms. By law, these have to provide them with care, the world’s most expensive. It’s a health system only Wall Street could love.

And Wall Street does love it. But for them it could be even better. If we could just get rid of Medicare, which is essentially what many Republicans are calling for, all seniors would be forced into the juicy private insurance market. And if we could just tweak the patent laws, folks would have to pay full price for Lipitor forever.

Our system makes foreigners scratch their heads. How can a great nation like ours leave one in six Americans without coverage and millions more forgoing doctor’s appointments, medical procedures, and prescribed medicine to avoid costly deductibles and co-pays? Why doesn’t the government operate, or at least manage, health insurance itself? How can companies get permission to make their medications so expensive for so long? Why is poverty allowed to be so rampant, thereby making health conditions worse?

Well brethren, you’re now drifting into the realm of market capitalism, which has made this country so great. Every man for himself! Survival of the fittest! Devil take the hindmost!

Unfortunately we’ve been keeping the Devil quite busy lately collecting many souls whose untreated afflictions weren’t covered by insurance.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative, and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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