Jack Uldrich
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Unlearning & The Health Care Debate

Posted in Current Affairs, Health Care, Politics

Let me begin by laying my cards fully on the table: I am not a supporter of President Obama's health care reform plans. Nevertheless, I believe reasonable people can reach different opinions on the issue and, therefore, I am a proponent of honest and thoughtful debate.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of misinformation being brandied about by both sides. From Republican and more conservative voters there are the now all-too-common refrains that Obama and his Democratic allies are trying to institute "death panels." The website FactCheck.Org does a fair job of refuting these claims in this post.

On the Democratic side, supporters are now claiming that health care legislation will save money — primarily through savings from preventative health care costs.

This argument, I believe, is the more insidious of the two because it rings true. (In fact, I use to believe the argument myself.)

The problem with "preventative health care savings" is that what is true for the individual is not necessarily true for society.

For example, if I receive a preventative test indicating I'm prone to a heart attack I could very well receive treatment which will prevent me from having a heart attack. This is obviously good for me and it is good for society in that taxpayers won't have to pay for the greater expense of treating my heart attack.

So far, so good — right? The situation gets a little hairier when we look at the system wide savings. If the preventative treatment cost $500 and it saves society $20,000 the procedure looks like a no-brainer. If, however, we test 100 people and it only prevents one person from having a heart attack, the numbers look much different. The total cost to society of $30,000. (100 x $500 = $50,000 minus the savings of $20,000  = $30,000).

Now, I understand that these numbers are fictional but the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has reported health care reform will cost society $1.6 trillion over the next decade — in large part because of the administration of a great number of unnecessary preventative tests.

I also understand that my argument does not take into consideration the morality of not saving individual heart attack victims. Conversely, however, it also does not take into consideration the opportunity cost of what that $30,000 savings might also be used for. It could, for example, pay the salary of an inner-city school teacher for half a year.

My broader point is that the health care debate is a complex issue. It needs people on all sides to challenge their own assumption; to listen to the other side; and, in many cases, to unlearn what we think we already know.

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