A health care analogy that just about anyone should understand

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We’ve written a lot about the health care system — how it’s funded, administered and structured; how it becomes more expensive every year; and how unsustainable it might be.

We’ve opined, reported and analyzed, but like any complex system it’s hard to understand. You can draw upon your own experience, but few of us would volunteer for trauma.

When I took off Sunday morning for a 20-mile bike ride, my plans didn’t include a visit to the emergency room at Memorial Hospital. I rode with graceful élan — or unthinking recklessness.

Impatient with the cars creeping down the hills in the Garden of the Gods, I zipped by ’em all in the right-hand bike lane, until one driver decided to make a right turn. I couldn’t avoid the crash, and went sailing through the air, landing hard on the tarmac.

In shock, I picked myself up and rode away.

Once home, bruised, bleeding and finding it difficult to breathe, my appalled spouse drove me to Memorial Hospital.

The emergency room waiting area is cramped and dreary. I’d been there once before, waited for a couple of hours, and left in a huff, preferring to self-medicate. Not an option — the chest pains were getting worse, and it occurred to me that this might be the big one.

It’s hard to imagine any system of emergency medicine that would be quicker, more efficient and more effective than Memorial’s. Nope, no heart attack — the EKG tech gave us the good news seconds after connecting the portable monitor. Then it was time for diagnosis, for X-rays, for bandaging the wounds and prescribing meds. It was a speedy and seamless journey through the most essential part of the health care system.

It’s not cheap.

Hospital emergency rooms must be staffed and equipped to deal with every conceivable medical event, from simple traumas to the gravest of accidents. And let’s not forget the drug overdoses, the real heart attacks, the contagious diseases and the multiple afflictions of old age.

This costs money.

During a two-hour stay, I was attended to by eight visibly competent professionals, as well as several rooms full of visibly expensive equipment.

For me, the cost was negligible. Medicare will pay for almost everything. But Medicare’s reimbursement rates are lower than Memorial’s costs, so someone else will have to pay part of the bill.

That “someone else” is you, dear reader.

If you haven’t reached the magic age of 65, you’re paying through the nose for health insurance, and thereby subsidizing the uninsured, the partially insured, members of Congress and geezers like me.

Think of the health care system as a Ferrari owned by folks who can only afford to drive it by siphoning gas from their neighbors’ pickup. It might be the best car in the world, but it costs a ton of money to own and maintain.

So don’t get too mad at President Barack Obama. He’s trying to figure out, as has every president since FDR, how to keep the Ferrari fueled up and ready.

Because, as I found out, it’s comforting to realize that our local health care system is as smooth and powerful as any Italian sports car — although in my case an AMC Pacer would have been fine.

Meanwhile, hobnobbing with power brokers in Washington last week, the talk turned to politics.

“The mayor’s finished — he’s out of the game,” said one notably influential individual, “and I wish I knew where new leadership will come from.”

Mayor Lionel Rivera would, I guess, be dismayed to know that he’s toast. He’ll continue in office for another year and a half, so he’s not exactly a lame duck.

Even though he’s been lambasted as incompetent, ineffective and even a little shady during the last couple of years, it might be that he’ll be remembered as a great mayor.

During his time in office he pushed through the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters deal and saw the Southern Delivery System gain regulatory approval. The former might be less significant than we now believe, but the latter could not be more important to the city’s future. No SDS, no economic future — it’s as simple as that.

That’s what people will remember 20 years hence, and they’ll give the credit to Rivera, not to his political opponents.

Bob Isaac is remembered as a great mayor, but he bears the responsibility for insisting that the city attempt to build a water delivery system from the Holy Cross Wilderness. Isaac despised the “enviros” who opposed the project, and his inability to separate the personal from the political cost the city 10 years and tens of millions of dollars.

To his credit, Rivera succeeded where Isaac failed. We named the airport terminal and the Municipal Court building for Bob, so what does Lionel get?

How ’bout the “Lionel Rivera Southern Delivery System”?

On the other hand, opponents have ungraciously suggested the “Lionel Rivera semi-odoriferous flocculating solid waste disposal facility.”

Sorry, but Isaac promised me that one!

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.