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Never Pet a Burning Dog

Poodle Barks at Health Care


HARD TO SWALLOW: When in doubt, declare victory and go home. If it works for the military, I figure it can work for health care, too. Given that we are already home, this might require a modification or two. We could simply declare illness a crime, and lock up sick people. Those who died would be subject to capital punishment. Or we could just go with the placebo option. It turns out, according to Newsweek by way of the Journal of the American Medical Association, for the vast majority of people taking them, there’s very little difference in impact between the anti-depressants prescribed in this country and little sugar pills that only look like medicine. Except for people experiencing serious and extreme forms of depression, the placebos are every bit as effective as the medications being prescribed. Naturally, people are jumping to all the wrong conclusions, like, “It’s all a big rip-off, right?” Wrong. The point is not that millions of Americans are wasting $10 billion a year on happy pills that aren’t making them happy. What’s lost in the uproar is how amazingly effective placebos are. Better yet, they’re dirt cheap to produce. No expensive patent rights to secure, no acclaimed scientists sitting on government safety panels need to be paid off to overlook research “irregularities.” With placebos, there are no side effects — no urinary incontinence, bloody stools, or loss of sexual appetite to worry about. Lab conditions need not be pristine, and no actual scientists need be hired. Just mix a little sugar, flour, and the right dash of food coloring — affixed, of course, with the proper corporate logo — and you’re a pharmaceutical powerhouse.

Angry Poodle

Clearly, as the recent research on depression shows, placebos aren’t for everybody. Real sick people need real medicine. For the United States — increasingly a nation of malingerers, hypochondriacs, and whiners — maybe placebos are plenty good enough for most of us most of the time. But for the seriously ill, scientists have discovered that placebos have certain side effects. Like death. Either way, Placebo Care is infinitely cheaper. With Placebo Care, we can eliminate any government subsidy, slash premiums, provide universal coverage, and still have money to burn on expensive medical tests. No longer must we confront unsettling headlines about how we just spent $134 billion more last year on health care than we did the previous year. Or how 17 percent of the American economy is now sucked up by health-care costs.

Posing the biggest threat to my Placebo Care option is Anthem Blue Cross, California’s biggest for-profit insurance company. Just as it appeared that the Democrats’ health-care reform package was DOA, Anthem Blue Cross reminded us all late last week why reform is such an urgent issue. That’s when Anthem announced it was increasing the premiums charged to its individual health-care customers by 39 percent. These are people who can’t or don’t get coverage as part of some group plan, so have to obtain it on their own. Typically, people buying individual plans — about 800,000 of them in California — already are paying through the nose. Now they’ll be paying through every orifice of their body. Naturally, every elected official this side of the Goleta West Sanitary District has come out of the woodwork to express how shocked they are. But given Anthem’s recent history, it’s hard to see why.

This year, Anthem’s parent company, WellPoint, posted fourth-quarter profits 800 percent higher than the previous year’s. Anthem execs say they had to increase premiums because — thanks to the recession — enrollments are down. With fewer people to share the costs, those left get stuck. By increasing their premiums, no doubt the number of enrollees will shrink even more, meaning there should be another rate increase right around the corner.

Anthem has been forced to resort to such unfortunate tactics only after getting in hot water for canceling policies of customers by the thousands once they started seeking coverage. This practice is known as rescission. In 2008, Anthem Blue Cross was fined $10 million by the State of California for canceling polices on 1,770 members. The very next year, Anthem was fined a million more for dumping an additional 2,330 customers. As part of that deal, Anthem agreed to reinstate its former customers and take care of their medical bills to the tune of $14 million.

A day after Anthem announced its premium increase, the company mailed me a letter, asking if I wanted to jump ship from my current provider and join them. I wouldn’t have to worry about high premiums or loss of coverage, they told me. In fact, they promised me — in big, bold letters — “Your own fairytale ending.” Naturally, in my happily-ever-after scenario, the bozos we elected to Washington would work together to solve a problem that’s only getting worse. But Anthem’s promise, it turned out, proved to be a false alarm. The letter was addressed to the previous occupant, not to me. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. In the meantime, I’m going to take out a patent on the placebo and will be getting into the placebo business. If I get a cut of that racket, I won’t have to care what happens to health care.

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