Health Care Should Be About Health
I am a community primary care physician. I grew up seeing the effects of social isolation and poverty in the black community and I became a doctor because I wanted to help improve the life conditions of the black poor. Practicing in the poor community, initially on the West Side of Chicago, I soon realized that I had to go outside the walls of the clinic and outside the institution of medicine to be able to work on improving the community’s health.
This lesson is also relevant to the book, An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back by Elisabeth Rosenthal. The book is a revealing analysis of the high costs of for-profit medicine as well as an activist guidebook for the American people and patients to confront and change a system that impacts all people.
Those outside the system in partnership with caring health providers I believe can and are making changes. I look forward to our discussing efforts to change the system when we speak with Elisabeth Rosenthal on the conference call on December 2nd. As Rosenthal states in the last few sentences of the book’s Afterward, “…the crusade to take back our health care system…. it’s going to be a long war.”
She documents how American medicine became the highly expensive, wasteful, inefficient complex business designed to generate profit that it is today. Rosenthal tells the story of the beginning of health insurance with Blue Cross and its partner, Blue Shield, which were nonprofit and accepted everyone who sought to sign up. “The original purpose of health insurance was to mitigate financial disasters brought about by serious illness…” Over the subsequent decades, especially through the 1970s and 1980s, “For-profit insurance companies moved in, unencumbered by the Blues’ charitable mission. They accepted only younger, healthier patients on whom they could make a profit. They charged different rates, depending on factors like age, as they had long done with life insurance. And they produced different levels of protection.”
She outlines all the components of the high cost of medicine: insurance, hospitals, pharmaceuticals, doctors, conglomerates, etc. while also focusing on how high costs impact patients.
“Nearly a third of Americans said they had problems paying medical bills, many among those forced to cut back on food, clothing, or basic household items…But will Congress head their distress call? Or will the powerful business of medicine hold sway, as it has for the past thirty years? Time will tell, but there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon. But that glimmer comes from you, not from Washington.”
Dr. Rosenthal also discusses the benefits and limitations of the Affordable Care Act. Namely that it has increased access to coverage and care but that in the face of the insurance lobbies and partisan political dysfunction, the ACA did not address the high costs of medicine.
Of course, the high costs of medical care are not limited to the money and financial losses by patients and the larger society. The human costs are even more deeply incalculable. The health and well being of patients and families is undermined.
New approaches to healing that involve human compassion and support are needed but not pursued because the focus is how to make a profit from the latest technology. Expensive technology has replaced the hands-on art of a thorough physical examination.
Departments that do not make money such as Obstetrics, especially in medical clinics that serve poor communities, are closed. Pregnant women have limited access to quality prenatal care, resulting in the United States high infant mortality rate — especially relative to other developed countries. The United States spends more than $3 trillion a year on a health care system that is unequal and unjust. We the people have to change it and I look forward to our conversation with Dr. Rosenthal.
Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practicing in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.