Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Health and Old Age

It is not often that I've had the luxury of traveling just for fun and relaxation. Too frequently the mandatory violin case has accompanied me and those few 'vacations' with younger children were in part an obligation to visit my parents and thus their grandparents. This summer I decided to take a little time off and fly to Finland on Icelandair's new route via Reykjavik and spend a few days in Iceland, a country often present in my dreams since childhood, during our return. My only remaining 'child', a young lady soon to be 17, accompanied me; this was her second visit to her second home country over the summer. It was bittersweet to see my aging dad but at least we had some nice and memorable moments together. At 98 life is approaching its end; there is precious little we can do about it.

With all the outright violent town meetings over President Obama's health care plans most Europeans are shaking their heads in disbelief. Yes, they pay high taxes but care for the sick and old and, most importantly, preventive care for children and grown-ups alike is a value no one would be willing to give up. No system is perfect and it is true that in the European model sometimes one has to wait for elective surgery. At least all the money spent on the system isn't aimed at making health insurance companies, their CEOs and hospitals rich. A healthy person is no expense to the state and there are no premiums to pay. Yes, if you want your knee or hip operation in a hurry, you can opt to go the private route. Even then the system reimburses you but only to a limited amount. Emergencies are taken care of immediately at almost no cost to the patient. Excellent prenatal care results in much lower infant mortality than here.

I was thinking about how lucky my father is, being cared for so well in an assisted care facility. He has a little 'apartment' of his own and the kind nurses feed and bathe him as he's too weak to do so by himself. The cost for this is a fixed percentage of his net income: he pays more than most as his pension is so high, but someone less well off will receive exactly the same level of care, just for less. We socialize banks but fear the idea of such principles in medicine. The Europeans are equally capitalist in their daily affairs as we are, just not when health and education are in question. So, I'm ever so grateful that my dad is well taken care of and the quality of this does not depend on his savings and investments.

It was sad to hear about Teddy Kennedy's untimely death. Surely we all knew about his grave condition and dire prognosis but Michael Jackson's addiction-related death was much more interesting a topic. I could almost sense a slant in media's reporting, to remove people's attention from a truly serious matter in favor of tabloid journalism. Senator Kennedy was trying for decades to make our citizens realize that health care for all was but an illusion. With so many unemployed losing their benefits we are indeed ill-equipped to face a possible swine flu pandemic. The only source for many to receive medical attention is through an emergency room. Tens of millions people with no insurance would result in a chaotic scene should a pandemic happen. People blindly think that they have nothing to worry about as they have health coverage through their employers. But what happens when they fall ill with a long-term or eventually terminal sickness? They will not in many cases be able to continue working and they are forced to temporarily continue their coverage under a Cobra plan (if they can afford it as it is the ultimate rip-off). Once that avenue has been exhausted no insurance company is going to cover them with a pre-existing serious condition. After all, an insurance company's sole purpose is to turn a profit, not to help the sick. If anyone can claim otherwise, I'd be the first one wanting to hear about it. We talk about the importance of having a choice, but what if the choice turns out to be between getting a doctor's help or being turned away? Interestingly a majority of people with illness-caused bankruptcies were initially insured and under the false impression that they were invincible. Threatening the loss of medical benefits as a 'punishment' is another scenario, one that I'm well familiar with.

Just like the housing bubble had to burst, we indeed have a health care bubble and one in education as well. If a person has accumulated almost $200k in loans for a basic Bachelor's degree, what kind of a mess is he/she going to be in if it is necessary to continue in higher education as so often is expected and required today? People are so naive to think that education's quality is somehow related to a high tuition. The state school back home isn't good enough: why not drive over the state line to another's similar institution and pay out-of-state rates? Are we stupid in this regard or what? Back in Scandinavia where studying is free and students actually get a monthly stipend to live on, a study calculated the point when a plumber, a nurse and a doctor would break even. The plumber was ready to retire before the doctor had caught up with his total earnings; the nurse was somewhere in the middle. This is in a system where huge student loans simply don't exist. What would happen in America if medical school would be paid by federal or state government but in turn doctors would be much more affordable since they wouldn't have huge loans to pay back? An expensive, fancy wedding doesn't guarantee a happy marriage. Ours cost a grand total of $200 and we'll be celebrating 25 years in a couple days. That was a smart investment in my book.

I'm writing this while flying over the Arctic. Yes, the climate change is obvious: Greenland's formerly pristine ice and snow has a number of blue lakes visible as a result of melting. It looks interesting and even beautiful, the blue against the white, but the polar bears and other Arctic animals must be in trouble. However, evidence shows that a very long time ago Greenland was tropical or at least thickly forested. As the Earth's magnetic field keeps on weakening, we are bombarded by more radiation from the sun. It has to have an effect on our climate, so perhaps man-made greenhouse gases are not the only culprit. It is possible that our Earth is getting ready for a reversal of magnetic poles. With the Sun this happens regularly every eleven years. In our planet's case such a switch doesn't take place regularly or frequently but we know this has happened numerous times in our Earth's history. I'd love to read a good study on this subject, regarding climate.

So, no more SAS flights between Copenhagen and Seattle as of a month ago. I first came over on one in 1967. This Reykjavik route is fast, even though the 757s are smaller than the jumbos we have been used to. Iceland makes a fascinating stop-over but that's a topic for another story. And yes, they firmly believe in universal health care and education, in spite of last year's economic collapse that hurt them unusually hard. Vikings might have been fierce warriors at one time, but deep inside they must have valued life as a basic right for all.

Sharing a book with my dad Veikko Talvi