Health care makes me sick

Fifteen years ago, I delivered my first child at Washoe Medical Center, and the total costs were around $2,000. Four and a half years later, I went to the same hospital, again delivered a healthy baby with no complications or surgeries, and the bill to insurance had tripled.

Wondering how a nearly identical procedure at the same facility could cost so much more, we checked our records and found costs such as $45 for a 400 mg dose of ibuprofen (four pills’ worth). When we pointed this out to the staff, they said, “Your insurance covers everything. Why do you care?”

In that little, expensive pill and that dismissal are the bulk of what is wrong with health care today—and what we all need to understand if Obama and Congress can even come close to getting this reform thing right.

As I write this, the numbers are coming to light: the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), together with their constituents, have spent $40 million on lobbying Congress in the last three months. That is $3 million per week and doesn’t include the money they’ve spent lobbying us—through advertising and media influence.

As National Public Radio reported, this money has hired a vast army—adding up to more people lobbying for pharmaceutical interests than there are people in Congress working on health care reform. And, as politicians and pundits toss around this tweak or that to the current system, PhRMA and its constituent industries already have what they want to keep their profits fat.

Some of the most immediate cost-cutting measures the government could take to reign in health care are already off the table: Drug re-importation from Canada and negotiated drug prices, a keystone in all other industrialized health-care systems. Thanks to George Bush’s 2003 Medicare giveaway, negotiating drug prices is now actually “illegal in the United States.”

There are other reasons that ibuprofen was so expensive: Hospitals recoup the costs of uninsured emergency-room visits by padding the costs to insured patients. As the number of uninsured rises, those costs spiral upward. While those of us with adequate or good health insurance looked the other way, health care became a giant profit-making machine for insurance companies and hospitals—but the pharmaceutical industry really takes the cake.

Not only have they bought the government with profits built on taxpayer subsidies, but other reports also reveal the enormous role of drug companies on our food supply. Seventy percent of all antibiotics are fed to livestock to keep them alive long enough to reach market weight in crammed feeding lots. As Prevention magazine reported last month, the superbug MRSA—a deadly, drug-resistant form of staph—is now present in our food supply.

Great. Taxpayer-subsidized drugs in our food make us sick—we go to the hospital and get fed more drugs. With its vast and powerful lobbying system, the pharmaceutical industry writes both agricultural and medical policy to feed its own bottom line.

“What about research and development?” One of the most bogus arguments out there. When profit pays for and drives R&D, profit—not public health benefit—is the goal of drug development. Rein in drug costs and the pharmaceutical industry can compete with other innovators for government grant money, letting science make the case for projects, not profit.

We have been fleeced long enough by the Sickness Industry. (It really isn’t “health care.”) The Obama administration is fighting the right fight, but we need to tell our representatives and senators to put negotiated drug prices back on the table. Without that piece, any discussion of “cost control” is just hot air.