Comfort food

The Madison County Record Oct. 16, 2005, 5:05pm

Several mornings ago, local lawyers brought loads of doughnuts down to the picket line for Madison County’s striking workers. Wooing the cause of labor has always been competitive sport in the Metro East, and unionized workers make for the some of the best plaintiffs around.

Dub the doughnuts smart marketing—- and sweetly ironic.

We’ll never deny the deliciousness of deep fried dough topped with sugar. But seeing as health care costs make for the rub causing this strike, perhaps bowls of Grape Nuts with skim milk would have been more appropriate.

Doughnuts and their irresistibility have at least something to do with why medical care seems to eat up a growing share of our incomes every year. But, of course, so do those lawyers.

Besides paying salaries to medical personnel and keeping the lights on in our hospitals, litigation is a preoccupying cost in health care. Lawsuits and the mere threat of them pervade the industry—- and raise our monthly insurance premiums-- at its every turn.

It starts with “defensive medicine,” where smart doctors these days choose the overcautious, more expensive route for fear that if they didn’t, it might be used against them in court. Then there’s malpractice insurance, defense lawyers’ high hourly rates, settlements, and bloated jury verdicts.

These don’t sound like it, but they all make for health care costs these days—- and we pay for all of them in those monthly insurance premiums. A report released last month estimated that lawsuits increase health care costs annually by $70 to $126 billion.

Reading about the plight of companies like pharmaceutical maker Merck, ordered in August to pay $253 million to a Texas man who died after taking its pain reliever Vioxx, it’s not difficult to see how. Merck faces 5,000 more lawsuits, the cost of which may drive it out of business but surely will make new drugs fewer and more expensive into the future.

Drug companies cannot hire as many scientists when the payroll is stuffed with lawyers.

Here and now in Madison County, striking workers want to pay less for their family’s health care. They are asking their employers—-that’s we the taxpayers—- to pay 70% of their monthly health insurance premiums. The county—- otherwise known as us—-has countered with a flat $125 to defray the cost.

The crux of this standoff is risk and who should shoulder it. Paying 70% means taxpayers are on the hook no matter how much health care costs rise in the future. $125 requires employees who use more to pay more while, at least in the short-term, providing some county budget certainty.

Whatever your position, it’s time we disabused ourselves of the notion that quality health care should be available for free for close to it. Great doctors and life-saving drugs don’t grow on trees.

And that doughnuts might—- at least for some of us-- doesn’t mean they’re free either.

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