What happens when “Enough is enough!” ?

Gas PricesThere’s been some comparison made in the medical blogosphere lately between the recent economic catastrophes that have plagued both the American and global economies and the potential financial powder keg that is the United States health care system.  Chronic Disease Costs More Than 2 Wall Street Bailouts Per Year, warns Dr. Val.  Dr. Wes admonishes us about Our Healthcare Hindenburg.  While it is wise to consider that the recent financial crises may be trivial in comparison to a true health care financing meltdown, we should not ignore a recent economic success story: the price of gasoline.

Gas prices are down.  Way down.  The price of a gallon of gasoline has fallen by more than 50% since this past summer.  While the poor economic forecasts — which translate to lower demand for fuel — are certainly one driving factor at work here, it is far from the whole story.

When gas prices went through the roof a few months ago, people started to change their behavior.  SUVs plunge toward ‘endangered’ list read a CNN headline last May.  While sales have picked up a bit lately, there has clearly been a move toward more sensible transportation.  There was even a bill introduced in the legislature to open new offshore areas to oil and gas development.  As columnist Michael Barone put it:

Sometimes public opinion doesn’t flow smoothly; it shifts sharply when a tipping point is reached. Case in point: gas prices. $3 a gallon gas didn’t change anybody’s mind about energy issues. $4 a gallon gas did. Evidently, the experience of paying more than $50 for a tankful gets people thinking we should stop worrying so much about global warming and the environmental dangers of oil wells on the outer continental shelf and in Alaska. Drill now!

Last summer America got some sense knocked into it.  Maybe I shouldn’t be using a land yacht to go get a gallon of milk from the store 2 miles away.  Maybe some of the road trips I take aren’t necessary at all.  Maybe I should ask myself whether concern about what the weather will be like in my great-great-grandchildren’s time is being socially responsible or simply indulging in a fashionable worry that’s hitting me right in the wallet.

I wonder if we may be approaching a similar tipping point in the financing of health care?  Maybe we shouldn’t eat so much.  Maybe we should exercise more.  Maybe we need more primary care physicians to treat disease in the early stages so we won’t need so many specialists to try to snatch us from death’s door.  Maybe if we paid for our health care directly and stopped pretending that our employers (your wages could have been higher) or the government (your taxes could have been lower) are somehow picking up the bill, then perhaps we would discover we actually had more money for real “health care” than we thought.

When the cost of gasoline became untenable, ordinary Americans demonstrated that they could act quickly and decisively.  I wonder if we will show similar adaptability when health care reaches its own tipping point?


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