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Cracker Barrel: Medical emergency

If I had a way to augment these words with a blaring siren — of the kind ambulances and rescue vehicles use — I’d turn it on and leave it on until our health-care system gets fixed.

If that sounds extreme, you haven’t read the March 4, 2013, issue of Time magazine. And if that’s the case, I urge you to secure a copy and start reading. Once you do, I guarantee your thinking regarding the medical industry will never be the same.

For the first time ever, the editors of Time chose to devote an entire issue of the magazine to a single topic: American health care. To achieve a consistent point of view, they assigned the task of writing the article, which turned out to be the size of a small book, to a single writer, Steven Brill, who labored at the task for more than seven months.

Brill’s a seasoned journalist, clearly committed to accuracy and truth. Because he’s a human being, not a machine, his viewpoint is bound to contain some bias. But when you read what he wrote, I think you’ll agree that his findings are refreshingly free from the customary left/right/pox-on-both-your-parties cant.

He sees the current situation as simply unsustainable, compares details of our national system with the cost and outcomes of several other industrial countries, notes that health care is a seller’s market, and presents his findings evenly and without a lot of spin.

What Brill’s work makes utterly clear is that Americans of all stripes and at every income level are often being severely overcharged by the current medical system. Those of us fortunate enough to have adequate insurance are somewhat insulated from the grief that assails those not so lucky — but every single citizen ends up being penalized to some extent by costs and charges that have spiraled to outrageous levels.

In the process, some hospital administrators, drug-company officials and the operating officers of health-care-related corporations have profited handsomely or, as readers might judge, obscenely.

Defenders of our current system point, correctly, to the fact that we as a nation enjoy an incredible variety of choices when it comes to treating our ills.

And Brill is careful not to disrespect or fault the many thousands of dedicated doctors, nurses, researchers and others who form the living heart of our nation’s health care. Instead he looks at the financial aspect of it all, and, in the best tradition of investigative journalism, makes it his business to “follow the money.”

Some of his findings come as a big surprise. I was startled to learn that the great majority of people working for Medicare are employed by private industry rather than the government, and was further shocked by the author’s suggestion that one of the most effective ways to bring health-care costs down might be to extend Medicare to people younger than 65.

Both of these findings are what could be called counter-intuitive, as are certain other parts of his research, such as the $132,303 bill for lab work that one patient received to get a bout of pneumonia under control, and the fact that health-care-industry lobbyists currently outnumber members of congress by more than 7-1.

The time for Americans to seize the initiative and take control of a system that otherwise threatens to bankrupt the nation is clearly past due. The cost of medical care now consumes nearly 20 percent of our annual economy — one dollar out of every five! It’s a situation that simply cannot continue, and the sooner we commence to deal with it, the better.

One of the best places to start is by making yourself familiar with this week’s article in Time — the one entitled “Bitter Pill.”

Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel