Health care is…cheap?

There are a lot of parts of the health care system that seem to work poorly. But the argument I hear most of the time is that health care is too expensive – out of control. I’m not sure I buy it.

Here’s the thing: What we want – cutting edge health care – is out of sync with reality. The reality of health care is the same as the reality of every other industry. The cutting edge stuff is really, really expensive. Early adopters know this. 5 years ago DVD players were $1500. Now they are $79.00 at the grocery store. The computer that powered Apollo spacecraft cost hundreds of millions of dollars. That same amount of computing power can now be put inside of a greeting card for $1.50. And I would contend that the health care that was available in 1980 probably costs a whole lot less now than it did then. The problem is that we all want to be early adopters. We generally believe that the best health care possible is a right (and maybe it is, but I won’t be delving into that today). But of course that doesn’t really fly economically. If we had the same belief about 60" plasma screen televisions, we’d all be screaming bloody murder that the television industry was broken. Of course a perfectly good 27" television now costs $200. Down from $2000 twenty years ago. The same is true of health care.

Here’s an example: I don’t know what an MRI cost in 1980, but I’ll bet it was something like $25,000. I had one last week and it was $1200. I honestly am astonished. I mean this is a 2 million dollar machine. I saw a doctor, a nurse and an MRI technician. The procedure took an hour and a half (I had a "fancy" MRI called a contrast MRI and it’s more labor and time intensive). In a state of the art facility. No doubt the hospital has a large insurance bill and admin staff. How the hell can this thing only cost $1200? Folks, this is not expensive.

When the auto industry grows and increases profits we dance. When Starbucks figured out a way to extract $5.00 for a $.75 cup of coffee and launched a massive new industry we applauded their innovation and brilliance. When medicine figures out new miraculous cures we cheer. Until they want us to pay for them. Then we turn them into robber barons and cheats. We turn the words "pharmaceutical industry" into a dirty word. I’m not sure it’s fair. Or productive.

Lesson? Well, it’s a tough one, you know? I want everybody to have access to the best medical care possible of course. But I’m not sure we have very good perspective on it. We expect someone to give it to us for free. Our employers, our government – someone. The reality is this: Health care costs about $300 a month. And for that $300 we are granted virtually unlimited access to brilliant life saving technologies, medicines and the best medical personnel in the world. Is that really so expensive?

My cable bill is $80. I’m not so sure cable is worth 1/3 as much as health care in the scheme of things. Are you?

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