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Derek Wolfe: Moving toward community health

By Derek Wolfe, Columnist
Published March 18, 2014

In late January, my grandmother was hospitalized due to a broken arm. But after the doctors saw her blood pressure wasn’t at the correct level, it was discovered she needed heart surgery. Now, halfway through March, she is finally able to go home after spending the past seven weeks in the hospital and two rehabilitation facilities. However, she’s leaving not because she’s ready, but rather because her in-patient coverage has elapsed and the out-of-pocket cost — $130 a day — is exorbitant.

But, this is no luxury hotel. She is cared for by underpaid and under-enthused nurses. Only half the facility is occupied and the food is atrocious. Dry chicken is served daily. No music is playing and a smile is hard to find. To put it simply, if I wasn’t allowed to bring my dogs in to visit her, there’d be a severe deficiency in positive energy.

There are certainly situations worse than hers, but health care doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, being sick is painful, but the experience shouldn’t be. For anyone. The patient. The nurse. The doctor. The administrator.

The federal government has a goal of having 7 million health insurance signups by March 31 as part of the Affordable Care Act. As of March 1, that number stands at 4,242,325. I would be shocked if nearly 3 million Americans signed up in 30 days. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves why this is the case. Perhaps the lack of “care” in health care is why signing up for the ACA has been such a tough sell, especially for young Americans. While President Barack Obama’s appearance on “Between Two Ferns” was hilarious, there is no escaping its desperate intent to reach the younger generation.

So my first question is “What is there to look forward to?” What are we investing in? Why would anyone want to think proactively about a bad situation being made worse by inefficiencies? Not to mention, in the case of the most serious situations, most insurance plans don’t even cover everything. It’s expensive with health insurance or not, so the odds are worth playing.

This is the case even though the United States spends more than 17 percent of its GDP on health care and it’s only going up. Compare this to the approximately 11 percent that other industrial democracies spend. The 6-percent difference amounts to $1 trillion. Yet, I find it hard to believe the extra spending is justifiable. In fact, according to an article in the Huffington Post, Americans do not live longer than citizens of other countries whose healthcare expenditures are far less. That’s cause for concern.

What’s also cause for concern is the ignorance of public figures. In response to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) on the March 10 episode of CNN’s “Crossfire,” former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said, “We’ve had guaranteed health care in this country for a long time. Anybody that shows up, whether you’re a citizen or not, you come to a hospital and you need care, you get health care. So don’t — don’t say that people don’t get health care.”

This is nothing to hang your hat on, Mr. Santorum. There are few things less efficient than having people show up at the hospital in only dire emergencies without any preventative medicine. Health care is an everyday process. Not just during emergencies with obvious symptoms.

The system is too money-centric. Maintaining the function of my body should not be thought of as a business. We’re talking about human life here, not the board game.

In 2012, my dad had foot surgery. Afterwards, he requested a list of all the things they charged for. Turns out, they charge and keep track of literally everything, including 6-cent bandages. Sure, using a lot of bandages add up when doing thousands of surgeries a year, but nickel-and-diming patients just puts a bitter taste in their mouths. The sight of a $10,000 bill is overwhelming and no one should have to fear getting a necessary surgery because of the cost. That’s just wrong.

What unifies the democracies I spoke of previously is their universal healthcare system. It may not be perfect, but I feel confident in saying it’s better for the country as a whole. Sure, this might mean longer waits for specialized care and doctors would be paid less, but I would bet that doubling down on preventative medicine by allowing everyone at the very least an annual physical would be highly beneficial.

What it boils down to is that everyone deserves the health care that they require and should be able to receive it from professionals who are happy doing what they do in a positive work environment. Any avenue that would allow this to happen should be explored because as it stands, the ACA does not go far enough.

Now, of course, the second half of the equation is not completely relying on the healthcare system to fix our problems. We need to invest in our own health. However, I will let first lady Michelle Obama continue to share that message.

I think it’s for a good reason that this story and argument have been written time and time again. Implementing a more universal healthcare system is the solution that makes the most sense, whether that’s in the form of a public option or total overhaul. We have to think rationally instead of maintaining a capitalism-or-bust mentality when it’s simply not working. Because as I’ve learned from my grandmother and dad’s situations, the status quo is insufficient and intimidating.

It’s time to move toward community health. We are the United States of America, after all.

Derek Wolfe can be reached at dewolfe@umich.edu.