You Can Fear The Sudden Lone Gunman, But Fear Our Private Health Care System Even More

www.reuters.comWith shock and disbelief, the nation watches and listens to news accounts from Fort Hood, Texas.  On Thursday, a lone gunman, Major Nidal Melik Hasan, shot and killed 12 people before being shot and wounded himself.  Earlier accounts that Major Hasan was killed by military personnel were mistaken.

Anytime a human  being, whether acting alone or in concert with others, takes the life of another human being, a tragic event has occurred.  For that reason, we tend to assign an especially profound sense of tragedy when someone takes the life of so many people in what is, insofar as available information indicates, a sudden, unprovoked attack.  To make matters even worse, the dead are U.S. service members, shot and killed in their own base by one of their own.

I have struggled all day about whether to write this piece or not.  I have the greatest admiration for our military.  I have written about the topic elsewhere.  I have personal friends who have, or who are, serving in the U.S. military at home and abroad, and I admire them so much for the benefits their service confers upon me.  With that in mind, what I am about to write should, in no way, be interpreted as a slap-in-the-face to the work of these brave men and women.

The number 12 pales in comparison to the number of people who die in this country each year simply because they lack health insurance coverage.  According to an article released by Reuters (a typically well-respected source by both the left and the right), approximately 45,000 people die in the U.S. each year because they lack health insurance coverage.  That’s about 123 people per day, over 10 times the number of dead caused by Major Hasan at Fort Hood.

In making this claim, the Reuters article relied on a study by Harvard Medical School.  Despite the reliability and respect of these sources, the National Center for Policy Analysis, a think tank supporting private health insurance (in other words, the system we have now), called the numbers flawed and exaggerated.  Another online source, Mother Earth Health reported on a 4 year study by the Institute of Medicine that 18,000 Americans had died in 2002.  By 2006, that study concluded that 22,000 had died as a result of having no health insurance.

18,000, 22,000, 45,000 – Those numbers differ wildly from each other, don’t they?  And yet, even if we take the most conservative number, 18,000, that still leaves us with 49 Americans dying each day in the U.S. simply because they lack health insurance coverage.  That’s 4 times the death toll at Fort Hood.

I’ve been there, or nearly there.  In 2002, I was diagnosed with a serious medical problem.  While thankfully treatable, the treatment was expensive and required a hospital stay of 5 days.  In the end, the price tag for my care – $30,000.

And, I was a lucky one.  I had gone to college, then on to law school, passed the Bar, and my practice was flourishing in 2002.  Unfortunately, I was self-employed and, at the time, had allowed myself to be without health insurance coverage.

Fast forward to 2008 – In 2008, a Vietnam veteran I know fell suddenly ill and was hospitalized for 2 days in a hospital similar in size and in terms of the locale to the one where I was hospitalized.  Whereas 5 days in the hospital cost $30,000 in 2002; $30,000 bought a guy only 2 days in the hospital in 2008.  And that was just the bill for the hospital, not including the doctor’s bills.

Sadly, military personnel are often killed in the line of duty.  I am going to ask my readers now to do an unenviable task – Put aside the fact that Major Hasan shot and killed military personnel on their base, the functional equivalent of a service member’s home.  As tragic as that is, people are suddenly and violently killed all the time in their homes by strangers, many killed by someone they know or to whom they are related.

Put those things aside in your mind and then ask – Why do we emphasize the death toll from a sudden, lone gunman so much more than we tend to emphasize the death caused by a silent, ever-present killer:  the U.S. health insurance conglomerate?  Do we reel in shock because of the deliberateness of the gunman’s actions, yet somehow view the health insurance companies as acting “less deliberately?”  If so, how do we explain with any degree of personal satisfaction what we know in our hearts to be true:  That private health insurance companies have created a twisted web of actuarial chicanery designed solely to take as much money from as many people as possible, while paying out as little money to as few people as possible. The fact is, you cannot explain it satisfactorily.

Perhaps, we view those who die from lack of health insurance coverage as being, somehow, partially culpable in their own deaths?  People should not allow themselves to be without health insurance, we say to ourselves as we head off to a job where health insurance is provided by an employer, or as we write out our own check to a health insurance company.  This disingenuous rationale certainly plays some role in the health care debate as we watch these so-called “patriots” bully and disrupt their way into town hall meetings about health care — all the while being fully insured themselves. In my opinion, blaming the uninsured victim is analogous to blaming the service members for their own deaths; i.e., they wouldn’t have gotten killed if they hadn’t been at Fort Hood in the first place.

Even if that analogy is inept, how do you reconcile a situation where an employer cuts off an employee’s health insurance and hours to the point where the employee cannot afford health insurance coverage?  I have a dear friend who has worked hard all her life, was a single mom with two kids to feed and clothe, and remains one of the strongest, smartest, savviest people I know. For the first time in her adult life, my friend has found herself in the uninsured boat (along with 46.3 million others as of 2007) because her boss, a small business owner, decided to cut back my friend’s job to part-time while simultaneously discontinuing her health insurance coverage.

Even at part-time, my friend makes too much money for public assistance programs, but not enough to pay for her own health insurance given her age and health history.  COBRA isn’t free.  Is she to blame at all for the fact that she lacks health care coverage?

So, while we should naturally be shocked by the events at Fort Hood, we should keep the numbers in perspective.  There is no lone gunman anywhere on Earth who can cause as much pain, suffering or death as a health insurance system unable or unwilling to provide care to the people it claims to serve.

Recognizing this is a divisive topic, what do you think?  Is publicly funded health care a civil right, or a civil wrong?  Respond to our poll and let us know what you think.

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