Health Care: the Next Generation

With all of the blockbusters that have come out this year, I think my favorite so far has been the newest addition to the Star Trek series. I was a big fan of the original show in syndication, and an even bigger fan of the later entries, including "Star Trek: The Next Generation". When I went to see the latest movie, it occurred to me what a politically diverse crowd was in the theatre. While I didn’t take time to interview each audience member, based on the conversations I overheard during the previews, I think it was safe to say that Republicans and Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives, all were sitting side by side in eager anticipation.

This struck me as rather odd because, unlike a lot of television shows and movies, those who like Star Trek are drawn in not just because of the plot, the action sequences, or the special effects, but because Star Trek produced a kind of wanderlust for a better society. For millions of fans, there is an escapism to be found in the very thought that the civilization dreamed up by Gene Roddenberry might someday be possible. And that’s where I got a little chuckle. When was the last time that people on both sides of the political coin sat this close to each other, eagerly seeking the same thing?

Truth be told, while we were all watching the same screen, I don’t think we were all seeing the same thing. I can only guess as to others' thought processes, but from what I saw and heard, I believe that liberals watch Star Trek and say, “How nice, a society with no homeless and no poor,” while conservatives say, “Isn’t that great, a society where everyone works to the best of their capabilities.” Liberals see a peaceful union of multiple races and ethnic backgrounds where cultural differences are celebrated, and conservatives love all the episodes where the Federation goes to battle with Klingons and Romulans in an epic struggle to secure those very rights and freedoms.

The current debate over health care reform is quite similar to Star Trek. When you strip away all the name-calling, idle threats, and petty bickering, I think you’d find that both sides want a very similar outcome. Neither side of the political spectrum is opposed to living in a society where all Americans enjoy low-cost, high-quality healthcare. But unfortunately, the Roddenberrian (yeah, I made that word up) future doesn’t divulge how to make that science fiction forecast a reality. And unfortunately, we can’t just travel through a worm hole to get there either.

Talking with friends and family, I think we all want more or less the same thing. But getting there is where the battle lines begin to be drawn. When you are rich enough and sick enough, it doesn’t matter where in the world you live, it’s an American doctor or hospital who gets the call, so you’d be hard-pressed to argue that we don’t already have the world's finest doctors, techniques, medicines, equipment and facilities. No, the real points of contention are cost and availability.

To address these issues, the first hurdle is to decide once and for all: Is healthcare a right?  When the founding fathers wrote “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” did that include all the coverage that modern medicine can provide? Many politically progressive people would argue that having full coverage is akin to the government providing police and fire departments. However, using that analogy, how do you determine a necessary minimum?  After all, there are many portions of this country that do not have or need full-time police and fire protection.

The people attending the local tea parties often concede the need for greater access for the poor and indigent, but don’t want the newly extended coverage to constrict the quality care they already pay for. Many of them believe that universal coverage will lead to mediocre medicine, and they’re not ready to give up the steak and potatoes for what they feel is an empty promise to give everyone Ramen Noodles. After all, if Congress really had a solution that provided quality care to everyone, then why have they worked so hard to make sure that they’ll never have to use the very system they support?

My guess is that they know what we know: that when a service is free, it’s easily taken advantage of, quickly overwhelmed, and, eventually, completely marginalized. Want an example? Try googling the terms “911” and “McDonalds”. By calling the emergency hotline three times to complain that the area franchise had run out of McNuggets, a Florida woman essentially put the value of the operator’s time, resources, and massive responsibilities at no more than the price of a value meal.

Health care coverage (universal or otherwise) is not free, and emergency rooms across the country are already having problems operating under the mandate never to turn away a patient. What will happen to the industry if you extend a similar policy to areas such as prescription drugs? If you want to convince me that a plan is viable, you’ve got to start by showing me how you will protect the significance of the system. After all, one kid with a crayon is all it takes to devalue a painting by Picasso. Show me you can teach people to value the benefits they’ll be given and I’ll gladly pay higher taxes to provide them. Otherwise, everyone loses, no Bones about it.

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Volume 5, Issue 15, Posted 11:55 PM, 07.28.2009