Tuesday, August 25, 2009

True Health Care Facts! (I want what my mom has!): Updated

As the intelligence and tone of public discourse devolves into apoplectic frothing, gun toting, and absolutely inane claims from the extreme right, the primary victims, other than the millions of Americans lacking health coverage, have been the facts.

At the town hall in Valdosta, GA, Representative Jack Kingston, to his credit, spoke in favor of what Sarah Palin has famously called "Death Panels," and he spoke with sincerity (tough for most politicians) about how the end of life issue touched his own family, and he called the provision, accurately, "counseling for living wills" instead of "death panels." He's spoken up against the rhetoric, and pointed out on his "Health Care Checkup" that end-of-life preparation could save Medicare $77 million dollars, not a big chunk of change in these trillion-dollar times, but that would fund a few neighborhood clinics. I applaud him for his clarity on that point.

However, in many of the other bullet points, Kingston presents facts that dissemble the problems families face with our current health care system. Among the most egregious is his assertion that, whereas consumers once paid 47 cents on the dollar out of pocket for health care, now we pay only 13 cents. This misleads because it suggests that we're actually getting a bargain and we should be grateful that employer- and public-funded insurance is so generous, and that's perhaps not surprising for someone whose largest campaign contributer is AFLAC, and three of the top five funding categories are insurance, lobbyists, and health care professionals (opensecrets.org).

The more important figure is how much of one's income is going out for health care, and how much larger a burden that 13 cents is on families today. Donning my old Forest Service statistical clerk hat and using figures from US Dept. of Health and Human Services Excel spreadsheets and US Census data, I could very quickly see that the burden for US families is growing astronomically. Since Jack compared 1960 with today, I did too (or as close to today as the spreadsheets and census data would take me--2006).

In 1960, the annual consumer burden, per capita, for health care was $101. That seems tiny, but the average male income* was only $4080. Still, that's only about ~2.5% of his annual income.

In 2006, the annual consumer burden, per capita, was $2256 for the same male who earned $32,265. The burden for health care for that individual has jumped to about 7%.

To put that in some perspective, if incomes had risen as fast as health care cost, the male in 2006 would have had to earn $91,336 to enjoy the same health-care-cost-to-income ratio as the male in 1960.

And it's only worse for women. In 2006 the average woman earned only $20,014, but her health care burden was the same, so her consumer burden is over 11% today. Marry the average man and average woman and add a child or two and you can see why the consumer burden for families approaches 20%. Employers have helped with some of the burden, but more and more employers are eliminating or reducing health care coverage for their employees. Still, if I added my own health insurance contribution and the average out-of-pocket amount, I would come in a little over the average listed above. But average itself is a misleading word.

Realize that half the country earns less than average, and you can see why so many are increasingly unable to afford health care.

Then realize that the averages also spread the burden across the full spectrum of the population regardless of health. Most people don't get really sick, and so the averages mask the astronomical burden faced by the seriously ill, the chronically ill, people with insurance and good jobs who go bankrupt when the co-pays begin to add up to the tens of thousands of dollars. People like my sister.

We haven't even begun talking about rescission, the act of canceling policies for preexisting conditions uncovered when someone becomes seriously ill (i.e. expensive). I can speak personally about this, because my first job out of college was to sell life and health insurance. Agents aren't trained medical professionals, and offices want premiums sold, so we were encouraged to check "no" whenever customers said "I don't know" to a health question. I was 22 (i.e. naive) and simply didn't consider that a company could behave so unethically as to cancel a policy after someone had paid into it for years. But writing premiums gets money flowing into the company, and, to keep it from flowing back out, companies don't expend the effort to check up on their customers unless, heaven forbid, they should become seriously ill (i.e. a liability).

Outlawing rescission and eliminating the practice of refusing customers with preexisting conditions, which would be the right thing to do, will make health care more expensive in the current setup, too expensive for millions more Americans. But these millions are at the mercy of tens of millions who like what they have mainly because they haven't used it much. Comes out of the check before they see it, co-pay's 20 bucks, most prescriptions are covered, no worries. To the majority, especially to those making more than the average, it still feels like a pretty good deal even if that number on the check keeps getting bigger every year. So, all those people out there with signs, many on Medicare, are essentially saying, "Screw the millions," and, as Kingston did elaborately on his Checkup, claim that it's fewer millions than the media is reporting. Fewer millions equals less guilt I guess.

At any rate, after doing my own math, I have questions about some of his other bullet points. He touts medical tourism as proof that our system is the best (40% of the world's medical tourists come to the US). First, boob jobs aren't real medical procedures, but I doubt such procedures were excluded (he has no citation for this figure, so I can't check it), and no one disputes that, for the very wealthy, we do have the best health care system in the world.

For everyone else, our infant mortality rate is a better measure of how we aren't taking care of the millions. According to the CIA fact sheet, we rank 45th, just behind Cuba.

But these are facts, and it's clear that, in this debate, the facts don't seem to matter. And the 45,000* adults under 65 who die each year (according to Harvard research published in American Journal of Public Health, more than die from breast cancer, by the way) for lack of adequate health coverage? They're the facts that seem to matter least in this debate.

Me? I don't see why I can't have what my mom has. She's on Medicare, with a supplemental policy. I pay into Medicare. I'm OK with people keeping what they have, but I want what my mom has, and I want you, Jack Kingston, I want you, Congress, to do your job and figure out how we are all going to pay for it.

(Psst. I think it would help Medicare, btw, to have an influx of younger, healthier clientele. You know, actuarilly speaking. Just sayin'.)

*Why male? The census in 1960 doesn't break things down into median household incomes, so we have to cobble together a bit to get a sense of the burden to families. *2 The original figure of 18,000 cited from a radio broadcast earlier has been replaced by this more authoritative figure.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Milton the blind kitten is probably dead by now

What do you do when you walk out and this rain-wet kitten covered with flies drags itself out of the empty lot onto your property?

You think it won't make it a few more steps and it mewls when you get close and when you get close it's covered not only by flies but maggots and one of its eyes is bulging and glaring soap-scum white. One of the eyes is bulging but the other isn't, yet it's blank as a nickel and it's clear the kitten is blind and there's no mother but the rain and it's covered with maggots and the flies keep coming. What do you do? You spray the cat with vegetable soap to kill the maggots and keep the flies at bay and nearly drown it trying to wash and comb out dead maggots and it mewls and shivers alive and it might just die right there next to the tomato plants, but if you use one of those turkey injectors without the needle you can put milk in its mouth and put it in an empty aquarium and cover it up and try to dry it with a wad of paper towels and then you can fill a shell with milk and it drinks it on its own and so fill it with milk again and again and it drinks it and coughs and coughs. Put it in the laundry room so it can't cough its death into the cats that already live there and where it is warm and dry and cover the aquarium so no more flies can lay eggs in its sick black fur and it is blind and as comfortable as possible before you go hear some live music and drink beer with friends.

After returning from hearing live music and drinking beer with friends, you check the aquarium and it's empty. Somehow Milton the blind kitten has crawled out and mewls behind the washer and it's amazing that a little milk could give it the strength to crawl out and drop blind off the top of the washer and not be more damaged. It comes out and tries to think a shoe is its mother because it was nearby when milk was there. Then canned cat food is near the shoe because cow's milk isn't good for cats, they say. The shoe tries to be a good mother but it has no idea if this blind kitten is old enough for solid food. It is and it eats and eats and sneezes and sneezes.

Now it's Sunday and it's clear it's better but not well, coughing and its eyes aren't better despite the neosporin salved in. The animal shelter won't open until Tuesday and it is a matter of waiting out what will worsen and what will become better. What will worsen is unexpectedly a back, because of playing basketball, and its cough, and what will become better is the blind kitten's appetite and its affection for the shoe, which is its mother now like in a child's book. Ants scour the food plate for remains. It mewls and mewls. Its sorry fur is fluffier and it no longer possesses a wet rat's tail, but its eyes and cough are worse, and the blind kitten Milton is a poet of survival despite what's killing it anyway.

My shoe is its mother and I'm sad for it as I, not you, have to take it to the animal shelter because its sickness is fatal as all survival is in the end. What will become better is sleep. Then its always open eyes can close and the shoe can be sad for its loss.

Spay and neuter erases all this except the inexorable factuality of the conclusion for all.