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Downing

The greed of the health-care system rivals the greed of the banking system

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Last week was interesting, news-wise, what with exploding watermelons in China and the embarrassing revelation for France that their media—and, apparently, their elite—are unable to grasp the distinction between "seduction" and "attempted rape." (And this from the nation that had always led us to believe that they were the final experts on this area of human experience. Choquant.)

However, I was distracted from world news by the arrival of the statement for my husband's minor cardiac procedure—an angioplasty and stent placement. After years of contented ignorance, we've started receiving these things, because while we're fully, even obsessively, insured, and Ed is still working, he is now eligible for Medicare. Something about the overlap has prompted the two systems—giant insurance company and giant government agency—to start watching each other, and the government seems to want us as witnesses.

This sort of thing is bad news for the health-care industry. If the happy arrangement under which providers of medical goods/services and insurance companies rack up record profits—and pay minimal taxes—is to continue, it's better not to draw attention to the fact that human suffering has become a conduit through which wealth is sucked ever more efficiently out of the pockets of the lower and middle classes and showered into those of the rich.

Here are the filthy specifics: Ed's bill, for the procedure and a stay of roughly 28 hours at Tucson Medical Center as an "outpatient," was $38,382.28. The stent, the little tube they put in his artery? $9,446. Med-Sur Supplies (billed twice)? $424. Sterile Supply? $477. Normal saline solution infus (that is, salt water)? $266.40. They charge absolutely whatever they please.

We're mid-middle-class people. $38,000 is almost as much as I gross in a year at my job, and roughly 1 1/2 times what I take home. It's about a quarter of what our house is worth, and much more than we paid for my car. It is, in short, a totally insane amount of money.

I read the other day that the cost of hospitalization in the United States has doubled in the last decade. I'd say that's conservative: When my brother was dying at TMC in 2004, my sister-in-law saw a statement for, as I recall, about $30,000 for 10 days of care. At the time, we were shocked.

But, wait. Since I'm insured and don't have to pay these ridiculous bills, why should I care about the costs? Well, let me tell you the other current family story about people and hospitals.

My aunt Joyce, who's 80 and who was until last fall the picture of good habits, vigorous self-care and radiant health, had a bad stroke in November, followed by serious complications. She is now mostly paralyzed and unable to speak. Last month, her husband, my uncle Jay, was told by the people at the rehab facility where she was being cared for that they "couldn't do anything more for her," and he would have to make other arrangements for her.

Translation: Her Medicare benefits were exhausted. The facility—no doubt engaging in the robust billing practices that are the industry standard—had extracted every penny it could from the federal government on her behalf. And now Jay's choices, as I understand them, are to legally sever himself from his wife of nearly 60 years, making her a pauper eligible for Medicaid, or go bankrupt paying for her care, at which point they will both be eligible. Hooray!

Ironically enough, my aunt and uncle are ardent right-wingers, and my mother tells me that Joyce remains a devoted fan of Fox News, which she now watches all day from her bed. She and Jay believe in the virtue of unbridled capitalism, the evils of regulation and the horrors of socialized medicine. And now a triumphantly unregulated, profit-driven health-care system, exploiting the complete and helpless lack of choice that comes with sickness, is poised to suck up every dime they accumulated over a lifetime of hard work and careful saving.

Writing in Rolling Stone about the great investment banks' role in the financial crisis, Matt Taibbi famously described Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

That slurping sound you hear? It's not just the banks.

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