Date: February 1st, 2003
By Daniel Perry
The just-finished political campaign was a missed opportunity by candidates from both political parties to talk about how to truly improve health in America. Now that Election Day is behind us, let's hope our elected officials can move past the heated rhetoric and start to really make positive changes in the U.S. health care system.
Political consultants this year advised candidates to turn the industry that researches and develops our medicines into a political punching bag. Of course, any company that makes and markets products in health care ought to be held accountable for its business practices and pricing decisions. Successful, for-profit health care enterprises have earned their share of criticism and no doubt, some have richly deserved it.
However, politics that stymie progress in pharmaceutical and biotechnology research run counter to the strong faith and value that Americans place in medical progress. The public holds great optimism that public and private investments in medical science will find the answers to conditions and diseases that force many older Americans into nursing homes and make them dependant on others for care. And this optimism has been rewarded with longer and healthier lives.
The Voice of the People
The Alliance for Aging Research recently surveyed people in three states, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Washington, and found a deep desire for continued scientific discoveries to improve the quality of older lives. In fact, an average of 74 percent of respondents say spending more to help people stay healthy longer, will save billions of dollars on government spending on health care for older Americans. Residents in all three states are also willing to put their money behind their beliefs. Nearly seven out of ten of all surveyed say they would be willing to pay more for new medicines and medical treatments if it would increase their chances of staying healthy longer and keep them out of a nursing home.
So why have the recent campaigns focused on making health care spending sound like a bad thing? Politicians often need to find a villain and with so much dysfunction within the U.S. health care system "bad guys" are supposedly easy to find. But the political finger pointing detracts from understanding real problems and finding real solutions.
Americans spend $1.4 trillion on health care every year. Yet over 40 million of our citizens are without health insurance. There are wide variations in quality and access to care, especially between racial and ethnic populations and income groups. Tens of thousands of our people die each year from preventable hospital errors. Most patients in the U.S. are over age 60, but rare is the doctor, nurse or pharmacist with specialized training in prevention or geriatric health care.
Hope for the New Year
Solving these issues are central to making health care more rational. But they are not the stuff of recent campaign commercials. It's likely the simplistic sound bites favored by the campaigns contribute to the fragmentation and confusion that keeps Congress from adopting comprehensive reforms.
The latest panacea for controlling health care costs is to increase our reliance on generic drugs. Just about every political leader from President Bush on down is looking for ways to save money by increasing the use of generic versions of prescription drugs.
Generics do indeed save consumers and purchasers money when a drug has been in use so long that its patent has expired. But generic drugs-by their very definition-are not innovations. As of now, there is no generic drug that stops Alzheimer or Parkinson's diseases. There is no generic drug that shuts off root biological processes leading to diabetes or cancer. Only when someone or some company is willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars and years of testing will there be breakthroughs against those diseases, and only years later can that be available as a low-cost generic.
The ultimate cost control in health care is keeping people healthier longer, especially keeping older people out of emergency rooms, out of the operating theater, out of the nursing home. That can't be accomplished until the research is done and until innovations in health care are put in the hands of physicians and other health care providers and patients. The companies and entrepreneurs who take these risks deserve better than to be convenient scapegoats for perennial hand wringing over the costs of health care.
In cities across America, the smoke stack industries are fast fading as engines of economic growth replaced by health care giants, including medical centers that bring jobs and quality medical services. But for all the paycheck benefits of a strong health care economy, let's remember that the most important dividend of investing in health is better health for all. Let's hope that in elections to come, even the politicians will understand that.