We need to ask hard questions about the dramatic disparities in health care spending that can be seen around the nation.
Twenty-five years ago, Allen Blume proclaimed a heresy. He stated without equivocation that the phony idealism of the 1960s was in fact a cheap veneer, concealing a new barbarism. He saw the entire elite liberal establishment culture as having a perverted vision. Despite the protestations of diversity and multiculturalism, the truth is we have fallen into an anti-dogmatic dogma which has brought us to an intellectual crisis. “We no longer think about the things we must think about to live truly human lives,” said Blume. We live in an age where confident assertions of moral truths and genuine inquiry are gone. Postmodern liberalism seeks to build a culture of moral relativism, where no one can be hurt by the truth because all truth is relative.
I’m a Blumist. There, I’ve said it. I’ve come out of the intellectual closet. I agree with him when he says that, “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.” From this vantage point I intend to challenge an array of topics that have become off-limits and unchallengeable in the medical intellectual community. The first dragon I intend to reduce to a piquant snack is that there is some relationship between the amount of money spent on healthcare and healthcare outcomes. You’re invited to this bacchanalia, but be warned: You can bring your own opinions, but not your own facts.
Let’s go to the magic box: Google. Search the internet for “life expectancy by state Medicare expenditures.” Alternatively, you can Google the “Dartmouth Health Atlas” or the “Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.” It doesn’t matter; they agree on the basic facts:
1) Life expectancy in the United States varies widely from state to state; and there is no relationship between what is spent in those states and how long their residents live.
2) Regions within states vary more than do states with each other. For example, in the state of New York, the counties with the shortest life expectancy spend the most on healthcare.
3) There is almost no relationship between distance to major medical centers and life expectancy; no one gets lower life insurance rates because they live next door to the Mayo Clinic.
The state of Hawaii has the nation’s best longevity (81.5 years) yet they spend less than a third per elderly person in the Medicare program as the state of New York. Spend less, live longer. Is anyone taking notes? Let’s take a mainland example since some of you are going to say that Hawaiians stay healthy by doing Tai Chi in the morning. I think that’s a bogus argument, but let’s look at South Dakota and Florida. Both are mainland states, both eat beef and have similar adult smoking habits. South Dakotans live longer and spend less than one third per person in the Medicare program than does the state of Florida. Here’s a stat that will blow your mind. If we sent South Dakota the same dollars that we send to the state of Florida for Medicare, the state of South Dakota could pay for all college, roads, prisons and still have a surplus. And don’t think you can explain the longevity in South Dakota by its abundance of great medical centers, “easy lifestyle” (have you been to Sioux Falls in the winter?), a surfeit of doctors or technology.
Of course, once again, we must be geographically specific: we can’t pick on the entire state of Florida because the variations within its borders are unbelievable. Medicare expenditures per person in the Fort Myers area are about half as those in the Miami area. Explain please. By the way, Miami is one of the bellwethers for spending. The Dartmouth Atlas study says that the cost in the best big city in America for longevity – Minneapolis – is less than a third the cost in Dolphin land.
Say what you will, these destinations do not represent areas of medical paradise. But on we work from sun up to sun down, asking no basic questions, accepting the basic dictates that more healthcare is better and that the federal government is here to explain it all to us intellectual toads.
I agree with Blume that the dogma completely stifles questions as to why these facts exist. We are in need of a reunification of the universal desires of all cultures throughout time; we need to return to the discipline of desires, direct ourselves towards goals and ideals, and inculcate feelings of intellectual shame when we fail. All is not relative; there are ideas worth fighting for.
In his critique of Plato’s Dialogues, which is where I first met Professor Blume, he asserted that Socrates challenged his interlocutors to unleash the shackles of prevailing beliefs. Blume thought that attacking convention was the key to deeper truths, and the way to seek our ultimate goal, which is better health and not just new ways of financing the status quo.
Truth is a cruel mistress, giving no quarter, asking no tribute except respect. The endless chattering of our governmental machinery with their seven-second sound bytes and simplistic syllogisms seems positively Swiftian. We need a Virgil to guide us through this intellectual inferno.
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written by Howard Swidler , August 16, 2012