From today's NYT, an op ed by Kristoff
September 13, 2009
The Body Count at Home
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
In the debate over health care, here’s an inequity to ponder: Nikki White would have been far better off if only she had been a convicted bank robber.
Nikki was a slim and athletic college graduate who had health insurance, had worked in health care and knew the system. But she had systemic lupus erythematosus, a chronic inflammatory disease that was diagnosed when she was 21 and gradually left her too sick to work. And once she lost her job, she lost her health insurance.
In any other rich country, Nikki probably would have been fine, notes T. R. Reid in his important and powerful new book, “The Healing of America.” Some 80 percent of lupus patients in the United States live a normal life span. Under a doctor’s care, lupus should be manageable. Indeed, if Nikki had been a felon, the problem could have been averted, because courts have ruled that prisoners are entitled to medical care.
As Mr. Reid recounts, Nikki tried everything to get medical care, but no insurance company would accept someone with her pre-existing condition. She spent months painfully writing letters to anyone she thought might be able to help. She fought tenaciously for her life.
Finally, Nikki collapsed at her home in Tennessee and was rushed to a hospital emergency room, which was then required to treat her without payment until her condition stabilized. Since money was no longer an issue, the hospital performed 25 emergency surgeries on Nikki, and she spent six months in critical care.
“When Nikki showed up at the emergency room, she received the best of care, and the hospital spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on her,” her step-father, Tony Deal, told me. “But that’s not when she needed the care.”
By then it was too late. In 2006, Nikki White died at age 32. “Nikki didn’t die from lupus,” her doctor, Amylyn Crawford, told Mr. Reid. “Nikki died from complications of the failing American health care system.”
“She fell through the cracks,” Nikki’s mother, Gail Deal, told me grimly. “When you bury a child, it’s the worst thing in the world. You never recover.”
We now have a chance to reform this cruel and capricious system. If we let that chance slip away, there will be another Nikki dying every half-hour.
That’s how often someone dies in America because of a lack of insurance, according to a study by a branch of the National Academy of Sciences. Over a year, that amounts to 18,000 American deaths.
After Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans, eight years ago on Friday, we went to war and spent hundreds of billions of dollars ensuring that this would not happen again. Yet every two months, that many people die because of our failure to provide universal insurance — and yet many members of Congress want us to do nothing?
Mr. Reid’s book is a rich tour of health care around the world. Because he has a bum shoulder, he asked doctors in many countries to examine it and make recommendations. His American orthopedist recommended a titanium shoulder replacement that would cost tens of thousands of dollars and might or might not help. Specialists in other countries warned that a sore shoulder didn’t justify the risks of such major surgery, although some said it would be available free if Mr. Reid insisted. Instead, they offered physical therapy, acupuncture and other cheap and noninvasive alternatives, some of which worked pretty well.
That’s a window into the flaws in our health care system: we offer titanium shoulder replacements for those who don’t really need them, but we let 32-year-old women die if they lose their health insurance. No wonder we spend so much on medical care, and yet have some health care statistics that are worse than Slovenia’s.
My suggestion for anyone in Nikki’s situation: commit a crime and get locked up. In Washington State, a 20-year-old inmate named Melissa Matthews chose to turn down parole and stay in prison because that was the only way she could get treatment for her cervical cancer. “If I’m out, I’m going to die from this cancer,” she told a television station.
Mr. and Mrs. Deal say they are speaking out because Nikki wouldn’t want anyone to endure what she did. “Nikki was a college-educated, middle-class woman, and if it could happen to her, it can happen to anyone,” Mr. Deal said. “This should not be happening in our country.”
Struggling to get out the words, Mrs. Deal added: “The loss of a child is the greatest hurt anyone will ever suffer. Because of the circumstances she endured with the health care system, I lost my daughter.”
Complex arguments are being batted around in this health care debate, but the central issue isn’t technical but moral. The first question is simply this: Do we wish to be the only rich nation in the world that lets a 32-year-old woman die because she can’t get health insurance? Is that really us?