Obese smoking couch potato

I went on the Mad as Hell Doctor’s tour for a week. I went from Seattle to Denver with stops for town halls one to three times a day. We talked about single payer health insurance, HR 676.

One question or objection to a single payer system was: Why should my money go to pay for some obese person who drinks and smokes, doesn’t exercise and doesn’t eat right?

Three answers to start with:

1. You already pay for them.

2. Put out the fire.

3. People want to change.

First: You already pay for them. As a society, we have agreed that people who show up in an emergency room get care. Suppose we have a 53 year old man, laid off, lost his insurance, not exercising, not eating right, smokes, drinks some and he starts having chest pain. Suppose that he lives in my small town.

He calls an ambulance. They take him to our rural emergency room. Oh, yes, he is having a heart attack, so they call a helicopter to life flight him from small town hospital to a big one in Seattle. This alone costs somewhere between $7000 and $12000. Now, do you know how many clinic visit he could have had for $7000? To see me, a lowly rural specialist in Family Practice where I would have looked at his blood pressure and nagged, that is, encouraged him to stop smoking. We would have talked about alcohol and depression. And who is paying for the helicopter meanwhile? All of us. The hospital has to pass on the costs of the uninsured to the rest of the community, the government is paying us extra, with a rural hospital designation. 60% of health care dollars already flow through the government. One estimate of the money freed from administrative costs by changing to a single payer system is $500 billion.

Taking care of people only when they have their big heart attack is ridiculously expensive. It is a bit like driving a car and never ever doing maintenance until suddenly it dies on the highway. No oil, tires flat, transmission shot and ran into a tree in the rain because the windshield wiper fluid had been gone for a while. I get to take care of Uncle Alfred. He is 80 and has not seen a doctor for 30 years and is now in the hospital. “But he’s been fine,” says the family. Nope. He has had high blood pressure for years, that has led to heart failure, he has moderate kidney failure, his lungs are shot from smoking, turns out he developed diabetes sometime in the last 30 years and he’s going blind. Can’t hear much either. We have a minor celebration in the ICU because he doesn’t drink, so his liver actually works. He goes home on 8 new medicines.

Secondly: Put out the fire. When someone’s house is burning down, as a society we do not say, well, she didn’t store her paint thinner right or trim her topiary enough and she has too many newspapers stacked up. We go put out the fire. Putting out the fire helps us as a society: it keeps the fire from spreading to other houses. It saves lives and is compassionate. We think firemen and women are heros and heroines. And they are.

In the past, a homeowner would have to pay for fire service and would have a sign on their home. If the house was on fire and a different company was going by, that company wouldn’t put out the fire. We have the equivalent with health insurance right now. It would be much more efficient and less costly to have a single payer. Medicare has a 3% overhead: it is a public fund paying private doctors and hospitals. The VA is a socialized system, with the hospitals owned by the government and the medical personnel paid by them.

When someone asks why they should help someone else, I also know that they haven’t been hit yet. They have not gotten rheumatoid arthritis at age 32 or had another driver run in to them and broken bones or had another unexpected surprise illness or injury that happened in spite of the fact that they don’t smoke, don’t drink, eat right and exercise. Everyone has a health challenge at sometime in their life.

Third: people want to get better. Really. In clinic I do not see anyone who doesn’t hope a little that their life could change, that they could lose weight, stop smoking. True, there are some drinkers who are in denial, but I will never forget taking the time to tell a patient why he would die of liver failure if he didn’t stop drinking. He came back 6 weeks later sober. I said, “You are sober!” (We don’t see that response very frequently.) He looked at me in surprise: “You said I’d die if I didn’t stop.” He never drank again. It made it really hard to be totally cynical about alcohol and I can’t do it. People change and there is hope for change. I feel completely blessed to support change in clinic and watch people do it. They are amazing. But they need support and they need someone to listen and they need a place to take their fears and their confusion. Primary care is, in a sense, a job of nagging. But it is also a job of celebration because people do get better.

We are already paying, in an expensive, inefficient and dysfunctional way. It saves money to put out the fire. People want to get better. Winston Churchill said, “Americans always do the right thing after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” It is time to do the right thing. Single payer. The current bill is HR676. We can and we will.