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As published in the Rock Island Argus.

Cancer, Profit and the Health Care People Deserve

It is utterly horrible and unjust that people die every day in America because they can’t afford medical care which possibly could have saved their lives. There are 45 million people without health coverage in the world’s wealthiest nation — ours – and this number includes 4,600 women diagnosed each year with breast cancer. According to the Census Bureau and Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 50% of these woman have a greater chance of dying because they are uninsured. As a person undergoing treatment for breast cancer for two years, I’m very grateful that the future is hopeful for me. At the same time, I know the terror and anguish of a serious illness, and while I am lucky to have medical insurance, it tears me apart to think of what people endure without it. 
        Susan Garrett, a registered nurse, writes compassionately in “America’s Failed Health-Care System Should Shame Us,” (Washington Post, 8/18/00): “We simply allow people to suffer and die if they [can’t] pay for our vast array of medical technologies.”  She tells of Lucinda, a 36-year-old mother of 5, with breast cancer: “The specialist examined her, told her she would die unless she got treatment, then told her to come back when she had the money to pay for it.” 
       Ms. Garrett writes of looking into the eyes of Lucinda’s children, knowing that she couldn’t help their mother: “It was the worst experience of my life, and it’s made me feel that I am part of a health care system so fundamentally flawed and unfair that we as Americans should be ashamed...[and] do something about it.” 
       Consumer Reports (9/00) states that “Basic health care is a right in every other industrialized nation.” How can we call ourselves “civilized” and allow people to die? From what in the human self does this brutal coldness arise? 
       Eli Siegel, the great American philosopher and economist who founded the education Aesthetic Realism in 1941, explained the source of every injustice: contempt, the “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” And contempt is the basis of profit economics, whereby some people use the lives and work of many others to enrich themselves. 
       In 1970 Mr. Siegel saw that the profit system, after centuries, had failed.  In these decades, despite the hype to the contrary, results of this failure are everywhere. U.S. companies, desperate to save waning profits, go overseas where it is easier to exploit people, while increasing homelessness, child labor, sweatshops, and disease here.   Because of the profit motive, health care is an industry, cancer drugs a wonderful “market niche,” sick children more “marketable” than adults, and critical illness insurance a “hot new product.” This profit frenzy is an onslaught on health in America. 
       And drug companies raise prices on prescription medicines while paying manufacturers of generic drugs to keep them off the market.  This puts all medicines, including chemotherapy, out of reach for millions of people.  In the past two years my chemo drugs alone -- with health insurance -- have cost my husband and me thousands of dollars. Millions of people have the distress of receiving an insurance company’s “explanation of benefits” with charges denied for going out of network or exceeding “usual and customary” costs. The numbers of “underinsured” are increasing along with the uninsured, and so are the death rates. 
       It is a tremendous fact that all over the country support groups and organizations are struggling to provide “a safety net,” to assist people in getting required medical care. This is good will, the best thing in people, and it is beautiful. But it is not the answer – health care should be a right! 
       In the international periodical, The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism gives form to what millions of people feel:  

“Never was there more fury at drug companies. Americans know that these companies use people’s need for medicine to charge exorbitant prices. Because pharmacy is based on profit, many men, women, and children cannot get the medication they need. And senior citizens can go without sufficient food in order to pay for medicine.  There is in Americans a real hate of the fact that what one needs for health is tied in with profit.”

For many, the obscene price of chemo drugs is a death sentence. Myrna, 42, a single mother of two, battling breast cancer and living on $728 a month, had this choice: chemo or eviction from her apartment. “The medications were keeping me alive,” she said. “If I couldn’t pay for them, [then] I wouldn’t need to pay for rent or food” (N.Y. Times 1/20/01). 
       The pharmaceutical industry defends itself by saying that costs of research and development (R&D) justify their huge prices. But Julian Borger writes in Guardian Unlimited (2/13/01) that in 1999 US companies spent more on marketing than on R&D: “In fact, much of the R&D work on new drugs is government-funded.” This means our tax dollars subsidize what is “far and away the most profitable major industry in the country.” As CEOs and pharmaceutical executives deposit multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses, and shareholders deposit dividends, whether they realize it or not, they are giving thumbs-down – deciding that people die while they enrich themselves. 
       This exploitation of human life is loathsome and not what America was meant for.  Eli Siegel’s passion about health care was mighty. I had the honor of hearing him say in a National Ethics Report in 1968: “Nobody should ever have to pay for having his body [cared for], even if he wanted to pay. The idea of people worried about their health, worrying about money...[or] about insurance at all, is barbarous!” 
       The one practical, truly American answer is complete national health care for everyone. We can achieve this quickly when each of us – citizen and Congressperson –  answers this ethical question asked by Mr. Siegel, and quoted in hundreds of articles nationwide: “What does a person deserve by being alive?” One result — along with healthier Americans — will be that more people, including Lucinda and Myrna, are alive!