It’s Time To Look In The Mirror

Steve Adubato's own experience helped him gain perspective and shape his thoughts on the national health care debate.

Illustration by Hal Mayforth.

A national health care debate is raging, and New Jersey is in the thick of it. At town hall meetings held this summer by congressmen Bill Pascrell and Frank Pallone, hundreds of New Jersey residents came out to attack any effort to alter the current health care landscape, even though more than a million New Jerseyans don’t have insurance—and between 30 million and 40 million nationwide are going without.

Many of these angry Jersey voters say they want to cut the size of government and dramatically reduce the cost of health care. They say the system is fraught with waste and abuse—and they are right. They argue against further government involvement—the “public option”—claiming that government is to blame for our health care woes in the first place.

While there is some merit to this argument, there is something else we should not forget: We, the consumers of health care, are a big part of the mess. It’s time for all of us to take a hard look in the mirror.

Back in June 1992, former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop gave a speech at Summit High School. “Patients are among the most greedy in the whole health care system,” Koop said. “They want everything and they want it with every health system they encounter…Insurance costs too much because health care costs too much…We spend billions of dollars on tests patients don’t need…More is not better.” Koop also acknowledged that there is no easy answer to the problem, “only a series of difficult choices.”

Shortly after Koop’s speech, I had an experience that helped me better understand his perspective. I was experiencing terrible sinus headaches. The pain was so bad that I went to the emergency room. The E.R. doctor confirmed the sinus infection but noted that the bone surrounding the pituitary gland at the base of my brain was enlarged. Fearing a tumor, he suggested an immediate MRI.

Stunned, I called my physician, who told me that without symptoms (dizziness, partial blindness, etc.), I didn’t need an MRI.

Forget that. I forced him to make an emergency appointment. Sure, the MRI cost $1,000, but my insurance covered it. Like many patients, my concern about costs went out the window when my own health was on the line. Luckily, my doctor was right: no tumor.

The bottom line is that most of us demand more health care than we need because the money appears not to be coming out of our pockets. But it is not that simple. More than a decade later, Koop’s sobering words remain relevant. There is no free lunch when it comes to health care.

Of course, maintaining the status quo on health care is no real choice at all. Blaming government, the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, and everyone else besides ourselves is convenient, but hardly the whole truth. Every health care consumer is a potential part of this problem. We’re driving up costs. We’re not considering the impact our choices have on the overall health care system. We want what we want and we want it now.

That attitude just isn’t going to cut it anymore. The sooner we realize that, the more realistic and honest the national health care debate will be.

Write to me and tell me what you think at [email protected].

Steve Adubato, PhD. is an Emmy Award-winning anchor for Thirteen/WNET and a media analyst and columnist for MSNBC.com, who also appears regularly on CBS 2. He is the author of the book Make the Connection, as well as his newest book What Were They Thinking?, which examines highly publicized and often controversial public relations and media mishaps. For more information, log on to stand-deliver.com.

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