Senator Kennedy Helps to Teach Why Health Care Costs Are So High

America seems to moving inexorably towards more government involvement in our heath care system. Last week, Senator Ted Kennedy provided a graphic example of one reason why health care costs are so high—and are bound to go even higher with more government involvement.

Last Friday morning, Kennedy had surgery to clear a blocked artery in his neck. By that same afternoon, the Senator’s surgeon, Dr. Richard Cambria was holding a press conference to explain that Kennedy had a “very high-grade blockage” in the artery and that “the senator (was) eating ice cream and drinking ginger ale.”

Dr. Larry Ronan, Kennedy’s personal physician said, “his overall health is excellent” and “his diet is very, very good.”

Clearly, Dr. Ronan is either a hired enabler, or he knows nothing about nutrition. Does his description of Kennedy fit that of someone who has emergency surgery for a blocked artery, who is overweight, and who has a drinking problem? More than that, is it responsible behavior to be eating ice cream immediately after surgery for a condition at least partially caused by eating too much fat?

But why, you might ask, is that our business? Why single out Ted Kennedy? After all millions of Americans have had heart and/or arterial surgeries created by poor diets, and a sizeable percentage go right back to eating the same poor diet.

Indeed, that is precisely the point. Senator Kennedy is just a very visible example of a larger problem.

Suppose your homeowner’s insurance covered everything in your home. By everything I mean painting your home, changing light bulbs, buying new appliances if the old ones broke, etc. If this was the case, how much preventive maintenance would the average homeowner devote to their home? The answer is, of course, much less than they do right now. Why? If homeowner’s insurance covered everything, they would have no incentive to invest in preventive maintenance. They would not have to pay for the consequences of their lack of preventive maintenance.

Similarly, how much preventive maintenance would the average automobile owner devote to their car if their automobile insurance paid for any problem? If automobile insurance paid for new tires, how often would you rotate your tires? If insurance paid for a new transmission, how diligent would you be in changing the transmission fluid?

Our current health care system has created a crisis where many Americans take almost no responsibility for their health. They understand very little about the functioning of their own body, they know little about the basics of good nutrition, and they do not engage in responsible exercise habits. They are full of excuses for their lack of responsibility. And as with Kennedy’s Dr. Ronan, our health care institutions help to enable these poor choices.

I feel some discomfort as I write this post. Some are dealt a difficult hand in life, one they did not necessarily create through choices they made. We have a genetic makeup, we are born into a certain family at a certain time, and events occur that are not under our control. In other words, no matter how conscientious we are about health maintenance, there are no guarantees in life. There is no perfect program that will guarantee that you will not have a health problem. Yet, taking responsibility for your health means that you maintain a sense of possibility that your choices can make a difference.

I have no problem with an owner of a car who never changes their oil and needs a new engine at 30,000 miles. That situation is literally none of my business; no one has asked me to pay for that owner’s folly. Indeed, we have not heard of a crisis in automobile repairs; nobody is calling for more government involvement. Bearing the consequences of your behavior creates powerful incentives to engage in responsible behavior.

I have raised more questions than I have answered. As I mentioned, in spite of exemplary behavior, most of us will have health issues in our life. Yet, poor diets, lack of exercise, and morbid obesity all have serious consequences for our health. In an earlier blog post, I pointed out the role of the AMA in raising health-care costs. Now, our own behavior in raising costs cannot be ignored.


14 Responses to Senator Kennedy Helps to Teach Why Health Care Costs Are So High

  1. Nono Yobiz Ness says:

    Ah – the Moral Hazard argument. It explains so well why the obesity problem is even worse in Canada, the UK, all of Scandinavia and France than it is here.

  2. Nono Yobiz Ness says:

    Also, good home owner’s insurance doesn’t compensate for having one’s house collapse and kill one’s family. Similarly, good health insurance doesn’t make cancer and heart attacks pleasant diversions to be sought out. Pain and death are still good motivators to keep oneself in good health.

  3. Cliff says:

    I agree with your assessment of why our health care costs are so high. My college roommate and I were just having a discussion about the foods different cultures eat. He’s French and a point he made was that the French usually eat organic and fresh foods. He said meals are often made with ingredients just received from the farm or animals that haven’t been shrink-wrapped.

    The point of that little story is this, it made me realize how poor Americans eat and I wonder what type of impact that would have on our health care costs. Personally, I’ve been trying to eat as much organic and fresh foods as possible.

  4. Cliff says:

    Oops. The other point I was going to make is that you shouldn’t make Sen. Kennedy the whipping boy for rising health care costs, though. If his doctor says his diet is excellent then we can only take his word for it. The fact that he was celebrating surgery success with a bowl of hospital ice cream isn’t indicative of anything.

    We really can’t make assumption of Sen. Kennedy’s diet.

  5. I like your article and definitely agree with personal responsibility. My father is a chiropractor and I, through osmosis, learned to take full responsibility for my own health. Many an ER has people sitting waiting for a doctor when it is something they could have taken care of at home. Were they not paying attention in health class?

    Unfortunately The United States of America is the only country in the world that does not provide free health care for their taxpayers. We can debate all we want on the issues of socialism, responsibility and HMO’s, the reality is we as citizens of this republic are receiving very little in return for our contributions.

    Overspending for the industrial military complex is where our taxes go. After all, it is more profitable to kill than heal. In Keynesian economics, war is the answer for a weak economy. But as Richard Maybury says “How’s is killing people good for the economy.”

    Hurricane Katrina left people stunned. After almost one hundred years of government taxation there was no real help. Fend for yourself was the response.

    We need a better solution for future generations when the richest country in the world can’t take care of the health of those who pay for this country. Whether in coin or in service. Want to make change? Require Congress to be in the same healthcare and retirement plan as the rest of us.

  6. Nono Yobiz Ness,

    I’m not sure why you had to use a fake name. I agree with you that things other than financial incentives matter and for some they may even matter more. But surely you understand that financial incentives do matter?

    For instance, let us consider the epidemic of type 2 diabetes. This form of diabetes is strongly correlated with poor diets. Do you believe that type 2 diabetics would do more to watch what they eat, if their health care expenditures were not paid for by others? I do. Notice I asked would they do more? I didn’t say that they do nothing now. Many diabetics actively manage their health in rigorous and often heroic ways; others do not.


    I agree with you, diet is very significant. My point about Kennedy’s doctor was to illustrate that doctors frequently understand little about good eating habits and tolerate poor dietary practices.


    You have given us much food for thought.

    Richard Maybury is an economist/political observer very much worth reading.

  7. dcolt1 says:

    Thank you for the provocative thread. Barry this is a comment to Brad-though related-that is tangential to your point.

    I had the opportunity to volunteer in Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. My time covered about 11 weeks starting September 14th.

    You wrote, “Hurricane Katrina left us stunned. After almost one hundred years of government taxation there was no real help. Fend for yourself was the response.” I saw two examples of this assessment.

    In St. Bernard Parish and Hancock and Harrison Counties of Mississippi, I saw and worked with people who were soldiering on; they were going on in spite of assistance. In New Orleans I saw a more sluggish response. In NOLA I saw an expectation that Gov. Blanco or the Feds should do more. Whereas in St. Bernard and Mississippi I saw people who were going to turn around their situations in spite of what government offered.

    After seeing FEMA trailers finally start rolling in to Louisiana towards the middle of November and finding out that they were made in Canada, as an outsider I thought, “with help like this, maybe ambivalence would be better.” I have nothing against Canada, but we have many manufactures in the US that could’ve built a FEMA trailer. Of course, this is one egregious example of hundreds we could talk about. I digress.

    The biggest thing that I wanted to convey is that we are better as citizens and as a country when we do “fend for ourselves” or fend with our neighbors and communities. As for the millions spent on the military and the industrial complex we are like the illustrious ‘Flying Dutchmen’ ever sailing and never reaching port.

    It’s time for me to get back to my ice cream, 64 oz Big Gulp and my chips!


  8. Donovan,

    Thanks for your very interesting observations. I would disagree with you on the Canadian trailers issue but I have seen the same attitudinal differences in responses to disasters. Many have clearly lost the ability or will to “fend for ourselves” and this is indeed frightening.

  9. Stonehead says:

    Not all of us have lost the will to fend for ourselves, but there are times when additional skills are needed over and above those we have. That’s when you need a system, whether private or public, that actually delivers those skills to the people who genuinely need them.

    I’m not going into the full details here, but Barry has seen the post on my blog, but suffice to say that I lead a healthy and very active life, eat a healthy diet, don’t smoke and rarely drink alcohol. I suffered a dental abscess because a nerve died (probably as a result of a knock to the tooth some years ago).

    The system here in Scotland is bureaucratised and riddled with pockets of incompetence, which meant i could not get proper treatment for the abscess so I’ve actually incised, drained and cleaned it twice myself. I think that definitely counts as fending for myself!

    But what I can’t do is access the dental skills I need to cure the problem and stop it recurring. I have paid National Insurance and taxes into the public system, but can’t get anything back.

    I can’t afford to go private as the money that could have paid for insurance is taken compulsorily as national insurance and tax.

    So, I’m stuffed and will either have to find the equivalent of $2,000-2,500 (not really possible on a small working farm) or pull the affected teeth myself.

  10. Dennis,

    I wish you the best in finding suitable care soon.

    I do believe that you would fare much better under private care. I know that my dentist takes a certain amount of “charity” cases. He would keep your dignity intact too by making a barter arrangement for dental care for some of your farm output. in the U.S. dental schools offer low cost care too.

    Dennis’ blog post is very well worth reading. Please follow his link.

  11. Chosun1 says:

    I wonder how long would it take before a U.S. Government-controlled health care system moved to deny medical care to people who do not live a healthy life style, as Britain’s Labor party is debating. Were we to have such a system and Senator Kennedy required surgery under that system, would he too be told to get healthy before treatment? One could only hope…

  12. Scavenger says:

    Why not have government incentives to stay in shape and healthy and eat decently?
    A monthly cheque for running or biking some miles, doing some weights, eating decent food would give people at least some incentive dont you think? The money saved would be diverted from a huge industry that benefits by people getting and staying sick for as long as possible.
    In Canada the health care system is even worse, socialist medicine has even more problems and a huge hidden tax load carried by all. There is absolutely no incentive here to stay healthy. I do not know why I run, bike and ski, when so many people dont give a damm about thier health at all, knowing that CANADIAN GOVERMENT MEDICARE will bail them out of any problem caused by thier sedentary lifestyle.

  13. billwp says:

    Follow the money …
    I ran into a posting on yesterday that encouraged vegetarians to double their calorie intake because they (purportedly) aren’t getting enough iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids.

    The article several times made mention that only a small amount of meat would cover the lapses.

    The study was funded by “Meat and Livestock Australia” but you can find similar publications from the various trade associations in the United States.

    We have a mistaken perception that a rich life requires rich foods … and little could be further from the truth. A rich life requires simpler foods … and thus to live long enough to enjoy them.

    Roughly a year ago my wife and I embarked on a predominantly vegetarian lifestyle. So far, so good. We’re healthier now than a year ago and looking forward for the trend to continue. We didn’t make a second religion of this … but it has become a ‘first principal’ in our choice of food.

  14. Bill,

    Thanks for your thoughtful observations. In the U.S. the dairy lobby has tremendous power. They have managed to convince most Americans of the absurd premise that without drinking cow’s milk one cannot be healthy and strong.

    For a vegetarian, Omega 3 is easily obtained from flax seed oil. For others wild caught salmon is an excellent source.

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