I love the Olympics. It is not as if I usually follow any of those sports, but I really care about swimming and hurdles and even beach volleyball. Perhaps it is the hype, perhaps the patriotic appeal, perhaps the two-week scenario of so many different and diverse sports and dozens of countries coming together to compete in a positive setting. For two weeks I watch it all — from the opening ceremony to the last-day marathon.
In 2008 at Beijing, the opening ceremony was fascinating — the almost robotic coordination of hundreds of performers. In many ways it defined my view of China – a teeming mass of people working as an enormous assembly line creating endless goods and products.
One had to ask, how could the Brits do better? And yet they did, because they didn’t try to replicate the perfection; they put on their own show, which was impressive but also humorous and a little self-deprecating. They showed their wonderful sense of whimsy; who could top the Queen and James Bond or Mr. Bean and the London Symphony Orchestra?
The British acknowledged their history, roots, industrial greatness and, in one section, their public health system They had real doctors and nurses dancing in a tribute to public health. I can’t quite imagine a U.S. Olympics in which we would single out our health system, probably because although we excel in many areas, our health outcomes are not one of them. We rank 49th in infant deaths. We spend more on health care than any other nation and still rank 34th in health outcomes internationally.
We are in the midst of an important election, both nationally and locally, and we must ask all the candidates: What are we going to do about this situation? We hear a lot of horror stories about “socialized” medicine abroad, but as one who has lived several years in Europe, I found it to be very satisfactory. We even had a doctor come to our apartment to see our daughter early on a Saturday morning. A real house call!
We have heard that our local health department has burned through its reserves and will need significantly more funds in the future just to provide the programs we have. We must ask our Riley County Commission candidates if they support public health funding. We know dollars spent at the preventative level are successful. Consider the lifelong costs of a child deaf from measles or born prematurely.
I have been looking at ways to fund more local inpatient mental health care with very little success. We know that unexpected medical bills without health insurance are a leading cause of homeless families and that the major national costs are for individuals with long-term health problems that need long-term solutions.
I am not advocating a plan, nor do I have answers. But I do know we need them, and we need to ask our candidates, particularly at the local forums, how they plan to deal with these issues. If we can get 202 countries together for two weeks of competition, if we can take our hats off to the British for the brilliant job they did, maybe we should look at their approach to health care. Or at Australian or Canadian plans. Even the Cubans and Morrocans are healthier that we are as a nation.
Last year, Mercy Regional Health Center wrote off $2,7 million in uninsured care. Could that have been reimbursed if we had universal coverage? Those of us with insurance are paying for those write-offs.
We have seen draconian cuts at the state level in support for mental illness. This year we saw more cuts to organizations like Big Lakes, which have waiting lists of more than 100. What are the real costs to a community if these individuals are left unassisted? What plans do our state candidates have in participating with the federal actions? Maine, one of the three states that expanded Medicare, has seen a 16 percent decrease in deaths —and not in 92-year-olds living to be 93 but in people in the 20-60 age range. Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger has asked why Kansas can’t follow suit.
Watching the 200-plus countries marching in the London Olympic Stadium, watching two weeks of intense but positive competition, watching again and again the individuals with that extra spirit of determination rise to the fore, I think we as a community, state and nation can find a path to adequate health care tailored to serve our society.
Karen McCulloh is a Riley County commissioner who is not seeking re-election.