The Ever-Hungry Gods
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The other night, my friend John explained why America is not ready for health reform. I've quoted John before. He's an unsung philosopher who works as a carpenter out in the Valley. Like carpenters of old, he often speaks in an oracular fashion.
We were out drinking Mexican beer in John's backyard, our dark bottles lit by the fluorescent shop light streaming from his garage. Nearby, his kids played in the shrubbery.
"Deep down," said John, "we don't want to pay less for health care. Seriously. We may complain about bills and premiums, but subconsciously we like to sacrifice our worldly goods to doctors and hospitals and insurance companies. It gives us a kind of satisfaction."
"That's absurd," I replied. "Nobody wants to pay 30% more for insurance every year. Or fork over ten grand in an E.R."
"No?" he countered. "Take a look back in history: People have always wanted to sacrifice to the gods of health and well-being. In ancient times, we offered sheaves of wheat or burned fatted calves, and the theory always was: the bigger the sacrifice, the happier the gods. The more we gave, the more the gods would care about us and our kids.
"The players may have changed," smiles John as he takes another swig, "But maybe not the logic. Nowadays, as actual religion tries to lower our expectations; as preachers and rabbis tell us not to count on G-d with a capital G to cure disease or extend our lives, we naturally turn more and more to the gods, small "g," who actually do offer health: Wellpoint. Anthem Blue Cross. The priests who work those mysterious MRI machines.
"These folks may be more reliable, but like the ancient gods, they are ever-hungry."
A clap of thunder rolls across the Valley, announcing another winter storm, and John continues: "People claim to hate their insurance companies, but you can't hate your gods. It makes you unhappy. Plus, they're unpredictable, so you have to stay on their good side. You never know, when you call 1-800-Claims, what mood they'll be in, or if they'll have added some new clause to the contract. I'm sure that deep down, we all worry that all this talk of pricing and reform is really pissing them off. Just try, sometime, negotiating price with a health professional."
I told John he was nuts, but I couldn't get his words out of my head. And sure enough, next day, when I find myself in the office of an oral surgeon for some mysterious procedure, I decide I'm not going to be intimidated by the system.
As I sit in the waiting room, I think, "I refuse to have some crypto-religious relationship with the medical profession. Don't all the politicians tell me I should turn healthcare into a market-based relationship? For example, if we had any guts, wouldn't we demand that the prices for all medical procedures be posted right above the magazine rack?"
When I'm taken to the operating chair, and the surgeon bustles into the room, I gather my courage and ask, "So, how much is this going to cost?"
A shadow crosses his face, but lo, the reply comes: "$1200."
"And, uh, how long does will this procedure take?"
"We'll have you out of here in 20 minutes" he smiles, but for once I do the math on his hourly rate. Let's see, three times 1200...
"Well," I venture, "I called around, and the surgeon down the street says he'll do it for $1100. I was just wondering if..."
"$1200 is our standard charge," he replies firmly, his smile turning to stone.
At this, lo again, my voice wavers, and I tilt back my head saying, "Right, well, just checking." And yes, as the surgeon enters my mouth with his needles and knives, I'm glad that I paid the extra cash, and happy to see the cloud pass from his brow.
Copyright © 2010 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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