The Affliction

June 27, 2013 § 17 Comments

The boys made sandals with Nate. Materials: Rawhide and the coat of Scottish Highland cattle

The boys made sandals with Nate. Materials: Rawhide and the coat of Scottish Highland cattle

Not long after $AVED was released, and shortly after I’d been interviewed on New Hampshire Public Radio, I received an email. The email was from a fellow who’d heard the interview, in which I’d gone into some detail regarding Erik’s and my family’s finances. He was perfectly polite, but his primary reason for contacting me was to point out, in no uncertain terms, that Erik and my family survive only at the behest of hardworking folks like himself, whose tax dollars are essential to the delivery of services upon which my friend, my loved ones, and myself depend.

In other words, that we are basically free loaders.

Of course, this issue is hugely relevant to the discussion of health care. As Tonya noted in yesterday’s comments “our family gets questioned about this often – how dare we choose to live in the way we do and have others pay for our healthcare…” 

Let me begin by saying that my family does rely on subsidized health care for our infrequent visits to practitioners who even accept insurance in the first place. Historically, the majority of our health care has been conducted outside the meme of insurance, but there have been occasions – such as the time I thought it might be good fun to depart my (long ago sold) motorcycle at speed – upon which we have been dependent on and grateful for the mainstream medical community.

Let me also say that I have complete empathy for those who feel bitter and exploited by folks like myself and Erik who have chosen a life path that is unlikely to result in the sort of financial remuneration that allows for the purchase of health insurance on the free market. It is a bitterness that is stoked and fanned from almost every corner of our culture, and one can hardly blame them from having become infected by it.

But while I have empathy for this view, I cannot help but point out that it is generally blind to the systemic arrangements which quietly (and not-so-quietly) define what our society values. It is blind to the truth that the very reason so many in our nation must depend on government for essential goods and services is precisely because we have commodified these goods and services. And in the process, we have heavily subsidized the commodity providers of these goods and services, tilting the regulatory and rule making scales in ways that enable these providers to stash billions upon billions of dollars in tax-sheltered off-shore accounts, even as they suck the true wealth of natural and human resources out of our nation’s towns and communities.

I happen to believe that health care should be a basic human right, and no more so than in a society where so many aspects of the fundamental building blocks of good health – clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean food – have been taken from us by the very same industries that are so heavily favored by tax and regulatory law. The tragic irony is that the very arrangements that are making it increasingly difficult for working class families to afford health care without subsidization are the very same arrangements that are forcing them to become more and more dependent on the health care system in the first place.

Furthermore, I happen to believe that people contribute to society in ways that are far more profound and affecting that mere dollars. I’m not terribly comfortable trumpeting my own non-dollar-denominated contributions to my community and society at large, but I am very comfortable speaking of Erik’s. And what I have seen is that Erik’s impact on the children he works with is overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, since the book came out, I have received emails from parents who feel incredibly grateful that Erik has been a part of their children’s lives.

I believe this is what Erik is called to do, and I know that the world is a better place for his doing it. I am struck by the moneyed economic arrangements that define his value to society as being less than $10,000 per year, while someone who trades in complex financial instruments, or markets the sort of superfluous consumer gadgetry that continues to erode our relationships to one another and the natural world, all the while benefiting from the regulatory and tax codes that heavily subsidize their chosen professions, is able to command more than enough income to pay for the basic facets of their well-being on the commodity market.

So yeah, while I have empathy for the view represented by the email I received and the comments Tonya gets, and I feel badly that we inhabit an economy where people are compelled to feel so ungenerous, I am entirely unapologetic regarding my family’s dependence on subsidies to afford health care. Furthermore, I am struck by the fact that both conditions – that sense of bitterness and stinginess, and the broader societal and economic arrangements that compel so many of us rely on subsidized health care – arise from precisely the same place. They are both the result of our society having become afflicted by the mentality of money. And that, my friends, is the affliction that is truly making us sick.

§ 17 Responses to The Affliction

  • Vonnie says:

    I, too, see it from both sides of the coin, Ben. After my husband’s most recent lay off cost us over $13,000 in COBRA insurance (and we are not a family that has that kind of money to throw around, either, it was a very large hardship for us), I became so disgusted by what that cost was doing to our family in so many ways. We used very little of that in actual health care, and did in fact have co-pays that still had to be met, that in the end it was even more then that amount. There is something very broken with our “health care” system (and like you, I doubt there is much caring about our actual health involved in the corporate end of it). But, we are afraid to go without insurance all together and a pre-existing condition makes us unable to get catastrophic insurance for myself.

    I also subscribe to the belief that one’s value in our society is not solely based on what they earn in dollars. From reading about Erik, and hearing you speak of him, I see that he offers a shaping and teaching of young minds. Young minds that will some day become adult contributing members of our society. I, for one, don’t want to live in a society where all children have been taught is that the only thing that matters is money. What a dire world that would be. I have no problem supporting Erik’s (and your family’s as well) need for some subsidizing of his health care. Perhaps he does not earn a six figure salary, but I would argue that he certainly provides societal worth beyond those figures, to those of us who value more then the almighty dollar. When the s*@& comes down in the world, who would I “value” more, the Wallstreet investment mogul, or the man who could teach my children what plants are safe to eat in the wild, how to build a shelter and indeed, how to make shoes in a pinch. For me, that answer is an easy one. If we don’t agree to subsidize the folks who are providing these skills, well…the skills will die with them, and our country is going to be in a world of hurt. Just my humble two cents on the matter…~Vonnie

  • Jennifer Fisk says:

    I have issues with health care being equated to treatment for a problem. Health care begins with how you eat, how you work and how you live. The system that we have is designed to treat maladies resulting from poor eating habits, work that stresses the body and mind to the max, and a life style that is sedentary in nature. Our population is over weight, diabetic and lazy. Our population is over vaccinated, over fed empty calories and over medicated. I totally object to paying taxes so our Docs and pharmaceutical companies can make money off this part of our population. These same people believe they deserve every possible test and treatment for their ills and that they have no responsibility for fixing the underlying causes.
    Ben, you needed accident care after the motorcycle incident not health care. I’ll bet you and your family rarely see a health care professional. You lead a healthy life style and are capable of handling most non life threatening problems that arise and don’t run to the ER for a sliver. You aren’t the problem people.

  • Beth says:

    I take some offense at what you are implying about the general population. I work very hard and give 100% to my community. I am a public school teacher who now, thanks to Obamacare, has to pay the $18,000 per year for my family that I do because not to is against the law. People like Tonya made a choice to live in an area that has very few jobs. So if all of us (generally) hard working, community minded people quit our jobs, move to the northeast kingdom in the middle of nowhere and live on the dole, who is going to pay our healthcare, if we need it? The politicians? We are very healthy people who never go to the doctor unless it’s absolutely necessary but our son, who is autistic and relies on medication, needs to. The pharmaceuticals are obscenely expensive, rip-off expensive, should-be-illegal expensive without the healthcare policy. Please don’t generalize. Many of us have a real story.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Hi Beth,

      Thanks for the note. I’m truly sorry you find yourself in such a difficult place. I do agree that Obamacare is pretty much a joke. It’s going to impact us, too, though not to the tune of $18k/year.

      Best of luck with everything.

    • ali says:

      The amazing thing in this argument is how we all need to stop and take a look in the mirror. NO ONE in this country is not on the dole, including the public school teacher. I think it is incredible when people get upset over subsidized health care when meanwhile their kids “public” education is subsidized by me and everyone else paying taxes. And seeing as you work for the beast, I guess that means your income is subsidized by the government (aka the people). My kids have government accident care that I hope we never have to use. Like it sounds Ben and his family do, I pay out of pocket when my family needs care, to see people I trust with the health of my family. In many ways I see myself and many of the like-minded people who come to this blog as far less of a strain on the dole than government employees. There is more than enough blame to go around for each us!

      P.S. I don’t believe healthcare is a right. It is simply our duty to preserve life, our own and our neighbors, no matter the cost!

    • anandar says:

      Ok, so I admit my job is helping people get health care– and so I have the bias that my job is not completely worthless (tone here is tongue in cheek :) ), but just wanted to say that whatever the faults of Obamacare, it probably isn’t going to result in January 2014 in a family having to pay $18,000 on a public school teacher’s salary. There are only a few states in which there are real numbers yet, but so far, it looks like prices for state exchange insurance (if you don’t have/can’t afford employer-sponsored insurance) are going to be much more reasonable than the current going rates. And a family like Ben’s– in the state I live in (not dissimilar to Vermont)– a family of four on an annual salary of $30,000 will be able to get health care basically for free because of expanded Medicaid– not fancy, but a much better safety net in the rare but possible event of serious, unexpected accident or illness.

      I, for one, am thrilled that my taxes are being spent that way.

      • Ben Hewitt says:

        you know, as broken as the system is, and as much as I think Obamacare does not go nearly far enough (and I get really upset about the mandate aspect if I think too hard about it), I am also generally happy to pay for health care subsidization. Or other aspects of the so-called social safety net.

        And we do pay taxes, btw. Our income isn’t quite that low.

      • anandar says:

        I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to (mis)characterize your financial situation. I just wanted to make the general point that the designers of Obamacare did try to make the mandate affordable through discounts, tax credits and expanded Medicaid (and the mandate, in turn, is what makes the change in the overall system affordable). Especially in more progressive states like Vermont and my own.

        I’m sure that everyone reading this could conceive of a better, more cost effective system for providing health insurance to people who need it. But I also believe that health reform was the best deal we could get given our national political reality. At a certain point, you have to decide whether to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good (and whether complaining about good-but-flawed policy will encourage people to fix the flaws, or to return us back to square one– that depends on context, of course, but the comments on this post set off my alarm bells).

        I apologize for getting so far afield from the excellent point made in the original blog post.

  • Tonya says:

    Good point about home education. I am sure because we homeschool we are saving the government thousands upon thousands of dollars each year (so if you think about education alone – the majority take from the government and we all pay our property taxes regardless of whether or not we use the public education system) – much more than the subsidized health care we occasionally take from the government (which we do contribute something to each month which, I am certain, is going to go up substantially soon as our family business continues to grow and the new health care system kicks in…. )- we earn much more than most jobs would pay here in the northeast kingdom, by the way – and have never taken from the government in any form except the health care system – which I concede is a huge one – but no food programs, no heating programs, no any of the other things that Vermont so generously offers to so many because both my husband and I believe that government subsidies are only there to support the under paid service workers that work for the big companies that then become reliant on the government handouts – including the “tax welfare/refund” checks each year (oh including child care and housing subsidies so they can “afford” to live on $9.00/hour) I believe government assistance certainly has a place – loss of job, loss of health, loss of spouse, divorce, etc… but the government and big business has created a class of people reliant on the government.
    What bothers me most, though, is the lack of freedoms we will soon have – or may have regarding our own personal choices of how we want to care for ourselves and our families…. and truly, as Ben wrote, all of this is fueled by one and only one thing – money, of course.

  • Suzanneinva says:

    Thank you Ben for opening this subject up. I did wonder about your health insurance situation. I would be so scared to go without it and am very fortunate to have a fully paid plan through my employer. there really does need to be a plan for everyone I believe but how to do that is way out of my knowledge base. Everyone should pay something for healthcare in my opinion. (whether through toil at a job or not)

  • Marek says:

    I’ve always found it odd that hardworking insured people would point fingers at hardworking uninsured people … From the perspective of the larger economy, isn’t that arguing over crumbs on the floor, not the loaf up on the table? I agree $18K is an OBSCENE amount of money for a family to have to pay just IN CASE they need medical attention… but it’s also actually what some people make off of their financial “investments” in a matter of hours, 24-7-365.

    Seems like we as a society have made certain choices regarding allocation of limited resources that reinforce a broken values system. For my work as a teacher in Slovakia, I paid 50% taxes (along with every other wage-earner in the country) which went into a national system for healthcare, parental leave, &c. — now THERE’s a clear choice to share very limited resources widely.

    – M

  • Marek says:

    PS. by “odd” I mean, I can understand why we do it, but I wish it were otherwise!

  • victoria says:

    I live in Australia where we have a strong subsidized health system which I contribute to (via my taxes) and benefit from. Additionally our family pay for private health insurance to cover us for services outside of those which the government supplies. Even then though, its expensive, you can never be fully covered, you will get a portion returned for extra services (like dental, physio etc) but still have to pay some for each visit. It is expensive, but like insurances, it’s for that terrible time that you hope to avoid that you pay it.

    I am constantly amazed by the US outcry over the health system, by that I mean the fact that you don’t have a truly subsidized system and that those with more money find the idea of it so offensive. I agree, good health care is a basic human right and I am astounded that the system is as it is. I pay taxes for things that I can provide for myself but I don’t actually feel resentful about it. I’m not wealthy, but comfortable, but I feel that because I am the reality is I pay so others who can’t can have access to things they need. I’m not talking about freeloaders or people trying to wrought the system, but people who just aren’t in the same situation as me. Some people here feel the same way about unemployment benefits. I know there are some who abuse the system, but there are plenty who continue to look for work for a long time, suffering disappointment and the stresses of trying to manage on the small amount of money the government allows them. I don’t think it looks like fun and I don’t want anyone going hungry.

    I watched a documentary recently filmed in the southern states of the US, where the Marines put on a free health and dental clinic. It opened at 7am in the morning but people started arriving from 7pm the night before, sleeping in the car with their children, just to access those services which I take for granted. One man had a hernia which had popped out and the doctor said he had to go to emergency straight away, he could die. The man’s wife pleaded with him, so he did. Upon getting there they said yes, he needed an operation, but he would have to pay $25,000 for them to do so. Needless to say, he didn’t have that money, so he left. I actually screamed out loud “WHAT??!!”. I’m sorry, but that leaves me utterly confused, how is that possible in the USA, a country that prides itself as being a leader in so many ways – a country that can’t even look after the health of its citizens.

    I’m so pleased to have found you via a mention of your book on the Soulemama blog. I’m very interested to read more.

  • Olivia Eklund-Smith says:

    I apologize in advance for being anonymous. I am wondering who these medical “providers” are who are stashing millions in offshore accounts and stealing all your money. Do you mean me? I am a family doctor who would LOVE to break out of this financial prison. I work only to pay off my med school loans. I hate the job. I hate the job. I hate the job. God, give me two acres and a cow.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      “commodity providers,” not “medical providers.” I’m referring to large-scale corporations that sell gazillions of $ worth of commodity products. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any family docs with fat Swiss bank accounts. Or maybe there are, but I’ve never met one!

      Sorry about your job situation. Hope you get your 2 acres and a cow someday!

  • I read a great article recently about the near-passing of a guaranteed annual income bill in 1970, and the shift of the American viewpoint from one of social social citizenship to one of “takers and makers.” It’s worth a look. http://www.washingtonspectator.org/index.php/BREAKING-VIEWS/remapping.html

    On a personal note, I work in the pharmaceutical industry and have done for more than 20 years. And while I don’t agree with everything the industry does or stands for, there are many realities of survival in the industry that the larger public simply do not understand. Like the fact that pharma companies, like all publicly traded companies, need to be ever more profitable to survive; this is a reality driven by capitalism, Wall St., our economy, etc., not necessarily by the “evil greed” of pharma companies. And the fact that developing new drugs takes millions upon millions of dollars in investment, and that coupled with those millions are the millions that you spend on the 90% of drugs that fail on their way to market; and that as a pharma company, you only have 3 or 5 or at best 7 years of exclusivity to recoup that investment before generic makers can essentially end your market. This is also dictated by government policy and is beyond the control of pharma companies. Lastly, the fact that basically every drug is assigned a category of reimbursement by insurance companies; as a pharma company with a new drug, you of course push for the highest category, but at the end of the day, you are essentially told what you can (and can not) charge by insurance companies. Please understand that this is not necessarily a defense of the sometimes ludicrous price of prescription drugs, but an explanation of the forces that shape these prices; the reality is that the prices are the result of a host of government policies going back to the Reagan era.

    Lastly: I am self-employed, and while I have had some very lean years as an independent consultant, I was never poor “enough” to qualify for any sort of health care assistance in New York. Hence, my husband & I went without any form of health insurance for 5 years (until he landed a job at a public school with great benefits). I’m fully aware of how broken our health care system is (and even more aware of the irony of being someone who has spent her entire adult life working to bring new drugs to market without having any way to access those drugs if I were in need) and I, too, was sorely disappointed at the compromises in the Obamacare bill. But I have come to believe that something was better than nothing, and I know many people whose lives have already been changed for the better directly through Obamacare. I try to view it is the wedge in the log, awaiting only the sledgehammer of public opinion to break health care wide open in our country. Let’s hope so.

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