Scared sick

The other night we had a family get-together. Over dinner we discussed the good fortunes of a niece/cousin who won $250K from the lottery. “She’s so lucky, I’ll bet her life is a lot easier now…” one person said. Always the Devil’s advocate, I disagreed. “Does she still have to work? Does she still have to take care of the kids every day? Does she still have to clean the house? If she still has all of the same responsibilities, how is her life any easier?” I asked.

“Well, she paid off the house so she doesn’t have to worry about a mortgage payment, and she bought a new car….”

“Yeah, but most people can’t quit their job over a couple hundred thousand dollars. Well, maybe some do… if they use it to start their own business. But most of the self employed folks I know work more, not less. Plus, they have to worry about insurance. That doesn’t sound easier to me.” I replied.

“Well I wouldn’t turn it down” my fellow conversant replied.

“Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t either. I’m just saying that $250K might make my life a little nicer, but I’m not sure it would be any easier. I couldn’t quit my job. I’d still have to get the kids up early in the morning for school. I’d still have to do… (sigh)… laundry.”

The point I was trying to drive home, and failed, was that we too often confuse luxuries as necessities. The average American replaces their car less than every five years. My family has traveled to New England for vacation almost every year. Many (perhaps most) Americans have mobile phone service in addition to home phone service, cable TV, DVD players, and sneakers produced with more R&D than Eddison put into his light-bulb – or the Wright brothers put into their plane (actually I just made that up, but I wouldn’t be surprised). In that $250K buys you a new car, pays off your house, funds a few more vacations, or provides some financial security… there’s no question it’s really (really) nice. But does it make life easier?

All right, I’ll concede that I may have taken my argument too far. Heck, if two-hundred and fifty large dropped in my lap I’d be down right giddy. Plus, there’s something to be said for not having to worry about some things.

This morning I picked up the next book in my queue: Sick, by Jonathan Cohn. It’s the story of the health insurance system in the U.S.A. – specifically: how it’s broken, how it got to be that way, and who it has victimized. So far I’ve read the stories of three middle to upper-middle class families who were victims of our current system. One common theme for these stories was a certain amount of fear. They knew they didn’t have healthcare coverage, they wanted it, they couldn’t get it, and they feared the consequences (this was before they got sick and found out what those consequences really were). Perhaps fear is too strong a word, but it was on their minds. They were concerned, if not a little worried. Personally, I’d be worried if I didn’t have health insurance. It’s one of the reasons I’ve alluded to which makes government employ so attractive (to me). I’ve had my share of struggles with my insurance company; some of which has been described here, but by and large healthcare is one less thing I’ve got to worry about.

I thought back to my dinnertime conversation last night. I thought about needs versus wants, and I wondered what life would be like if more people didn’t have to worry about certain needs. What is it like to live in a country where (presumably) no one has to worry about health insurance? What is it like when no one has to worry about trading a week or two of grocery money for a single visit to the doctor? What is it like when people generally don’t have to worry that they’re one hospital stay away from financial ruin?

I wonder if, controlling for all other variables (if that’s possible), people who live in countries with universal coverage are generally happier? How many people in the U.S. stay at jobs they don’t like because of their health insurance? How many people would be doing the work they loved, rather than the work that happened to come with low insurance premiums, under a universal coverage system? How would that effect overall productivity in the economy? How would that effect the quality of goods produced or services provided if they were born of passion rather than necessity? If people were happier, how would this effect outbreaks of violence, or crime rates? With potentially fewer financial worries (re: 40 million Americans with no coverage of any kind), what would happen to divorce rates? Would we all get along a little better? Perhaps I’m being a bit naive, but it seems like this could have a HUGE impact on a society – potentially for the better (much better).

Even if such a system was more expensive (and I’m not convinced it is), and even if some rationing of care occurred, isn’t it possible that these other (possible) positive effects – combined with more (relatively cheap) preventative care would make Americans (as a whole) healthier? To me, this is how we really could make everyone’s lives easier – not to mention better… much better.

Give the gift of words.