19 May 2011

What Are You Worth?

Standard disclaimer: I got C's in both my college economics courses, feel free to correct my logic, etc.  And yes, I'm fully aware that the cost of something does not equate to the value of that thing.  The intention here is not to assign an exacting formula for determining the value of one's time, but rather to explore an aspect of our economic and health care debates that I've not heard addressed.

Conventional economic wisdom holds that a laborer's wages are based on an equilibrium between the available supply for labor and the current demand for that labor.  Ergo, in a very real manner of speaking, the market tells you what you're worth.  You can increase your value through training, experience, etc., but you're still assigned a dollar value for the time you spend doing your job.  Note: this is not a context for a philosophical discussion about how we're all worth something that can't be measured in money.  Save that nonsense for another time when you can use that "something else" to buy goods and services.

I've been down with one of my most aggravating flares of the last year for about a week now.  Saturday I was invited to accompany a friend to a Cincinnati Reds game--one I dearly wanted to attend, mind you, as it featured the first confrontation this year between Johnny Cueto and the loathsome St. Louis Cardinals--but I couldn't even stand upright that day.  Sunday morning we went to the Louisville Science Center for Star Trek: The Exhibition, and I'm glad I took my cane, was pumped full of pain medication and that we got there early enough that it only took us about half an hour to navigate the entire thing.  I was entirely wiped out just from that inconsequential exertion.  I've spent most of the last several days on the couch trying to reach a point between lying down and sitting up that alleviates some of the pain, eating Jell-O and counting down between rounds of Prednisone.  It's a familiar story for my fellow Crohnies.

The last several nights I've contemplated going in for treatment.  The thing is, I know from experience that they would only give me IV fluids and steroids and send me home to do what I've already been doing.  I got to wondering: how much money have I saved by staying home and powering through this flare on my own couch with my own Jell-O and Gatorade, versus going in for treatment to come right back here?  Rather than rely on anecdotal figures, I did what anyone else in 2011 would do: I Googled "average cost hospital stay" until I found some information.

According to 2009 figures from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the average hospital stay ran 4.6 days and cost $30,655.  Mind you, that includes testing, etc., but obviously no one checks into a hospital because the Holiday Inn is crowded.  These figures don't even reflect surgical stays, much less ICU or anything exorbitant.  This is just for spending a few days in a room with some fluids and routine tests.

Let me ask you this: Outside of having to address your health, can you name one thing in your entire life where you would say that 4.6 days are worth $30,655?  If you told your family you were going to spend $30k in five days on anything, they would freak out.  You could tell them you were going to go around and build shelters for homeless orphans and they'd say that's an insane amount of money to spend in such a short time.  Even Charlie Sheen would be like, "How much money in how many days?"

As laborer or patient, our time is appraised in dollars.  Corporate owners insist that they can't afford American laborers, that we're too greedy and won't take "reasonable" pay wages.  Consider, though, that if you have to go into a hospital without having surgery or anything elaborate, your time spent will cost around $30,655 in 2009 dollars.  How can anyone not conclude that the American laborer is grossly under-valued and/or the American patient is obscenely over-charged?

And don't hand me that, "Well, what's your health worth to you?" nonsense.  Health is not a commodity or luxury.  It is an intrinsic element of life itself that has no regard for one's political ideals, spiritual beliefs, intellectual proclivities or anything else.  We are just as frail and prone to injury and illness as every human being to ever walk the Earth, and it is outright insanity to declare that somehow, in the 21st Century, that we've reached a point in our evolution as a species that we can now classify the needs of the human body as an indulgent luxury.

Bottom line: no one should be told that the cost of treating their modest health needs is worth more than they will earn in the course of an entire year.  If this is all abstract to you, then you've been fortunate and before you blast me for my failure to understand capitalism, take a moment to say aloud, "I have been lucky so far and I know it's not just because I'm a good person who made good choices."  Accidents happen to decent people.  Illness doesn't discriminate.  If and when those maladies come for you, what sense will you make of the bill and its declaration of what you as an individual are worth?