March 23, 2006

A Health System with Miracles

In our column we discuss Miracle Workers:
How can you tell when your nation's health care system has collapsed? One sure sign is the creation of a television program that offers access to health care to the desperately ill as a prize. The show has now materialized on American TV screens. Everything about it shows just how badly broken health care in America truly is. "Miracle Workers," which appears Monday nights on ABC, offers the services of "miracle doctors" to people with horrible medical problems. The show's Web site says that the program is an example of the network's "tradition of developing reality programming that makes impossible dreams come true."

In a nutshell, the show finds people with serious medical problems who nonetheless have the right stuff to be appealing as well as suitably grateful to their television benefactors. The program matches them up with teams of doctors and nurses who have been selected for their buccaneering style, willingness to push the envelope and good looks.

So how exactly does a show that hooks up desperate patients with hospitals falling over one another for the free publicity their best and brightest docs can create square with our health care system? Watch the show and you will know that if you are lucky, comb your hair and are willing to dispense with any semblance of privacy, a TV producer and his medical advisers may show up at your house and direct you to a team of well-scrubbed young health care professionals with loads of time to spend with you.

These benefactors will smooth the way to your treatment and follow-up care by picking up whatever part of the tab you cannot pay. That is health care reality-TV style.

In reality, a quarter of us have either no health insurance or lousy coverage. No one has a doctor who isn't using much of the time once spent on patients talking to bureaucrats on the telephone to try and get approval for a prescription or a diagnostic test. A large number of us spend forever in emergency rooms to get basic care. There are many children who get no medical or dental care. The waiting times to see the doctor grow and grow.

We are bombarded with ads telling us to buy drugs because a man can throw a football through a tire in his backyard thereby arousing his mate or a butterfly will alight on our pillow if we swallow a capsule when we cannot sleep.

No one has any idea why anything costs what it does, but it would be dangerous to go to another country to get the same drug at a much lower price. The strategy of the payers hired to look out for our health is to routinely turn down requests for reimbursement in the hopes that we will simply give up.

Oh, almost forgot, the cost of this pathetic mishmash of a bloated, inefficient and sometimes dangerous health care system continues to grow right alongside the numbers of people losing insurance coverage or benefits. That is the harsh reality.

What is really irritating about "Miracle Workers" is that the show makes health care seem a privilege, something you are lucky to get, rather than something you should have as a matter of right.

It suggests that what is most exciting about medicine occurs on the frontier, as if having your migraines treated, your alcoholism rehabilitated, your back pain relieved, your wheelchair properly sized or your congestive heart failure managed would not be miraculous if they happened today for everyone with these problems.

Worse still, the show sends out the message minute after phony minute that there is hope. Well, if you have a lot of money there is. If you don't, then this show is about as close as you are going to get to cutting-edge health care.

What "Miracle Workers" should make us do is shut off our televisions and sit down and write a letter or an e-mail to our congressional representatives and those who aspire to this office.

Point out that the rising cost of health care is crushing American business, leaving children in pain or disabled, forcing families to choose between eating and seeing a doctor, and creating a huge underclass of people who have a shrinking number of hospitals and doctors who will treat them.

Then note that if they want your vote, they had better be prepared with a plan to fix these problems. If they aren't, then in the real world of health care where you live, it will be a miracle if they get elected.

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