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In the real world, health is a human right

Mort Rosenblum's take on why America needs to focus on prevention, not intervention, in health care.

Supporters of U.S. health care reform hold signs outside a town hall meeting with U.S. congressman Kendrick Meeks (R-FL) in Miami, Florida on Sept. 3, 2009. Democrats in the U.S. Congress hope to pass President Barack Obama's overhaul of the country's $2.5 trillion healthcare system amid mounting public skepticism and unified opposition from Republicans. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

NEW YORK – In Beijing, a 50-cent walk-in EKG determined my killer chest pain was no more than a strained muscle complicated by bad dumplings.

In Paris, six weeks of hospital tests and enough meds to choke a moose found an ugly lung shadow was only Balkan pneumonia. The bills came to $1,500, doctors included.

And if I’d been on Chinese or French national health plans, I would have been spared even those charges.

Nearly every society on earth — socialist, fascist or anything in between — regards not dying needlessly for lack of medical care as the most basic of human rights.

Some countries do a lousy job of health care, but most at least try. Saddam’s totalitarian Iraq had a pretty good system, although it was no match for communist Cuba’s. Only in America do people grow rich by deciding who gets to live or die. Nowhere else are costs so outrageously high or procedures so needlessly complicated.

“Health was not supposed to be an industry,” Andrew Weil remarked on CNN. He traced the shift in America to the mid-20th century, when I started bouncing around the world.

Back then, a smug Tucson physician told me Americans want Cadillac medicine; his Coupe de Ville outside made the point. He just snorted when I asked about people who take the bus.

Decades of medical advances can now save countless lives at low cost, yet this profit approach grows more grotesque by the month.

Frederic Sarfati, a surgeon friend in Paris, has a different take on that automotive metaphor. He likes to think of the bulletproof little Citroen 2 C.V.

“Modern medicine is like car repair,” he said. “You diagnose the problem and often you can just replace a faulty part. Meantime, preventive maintenance is crucial.”

Parts and labor are priced on rational scales. Medical school is largely free and lawsuits are rare so most French doctors earn what American specialists pay for insurance.