Magazine article The Christian Century

Health Money Can't Buy

Magazine article The Christian Century

Health Money Can't Buy

Article excerpt

The intense debates over health-care reform have brought to mind some poignant memories. When my father was in his early 40s he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Our entire family was shaken, but perhaps no one more than Granddad and Grandma Clapp. Moving into their elderly years, they had to watch a son die.

To eke out a living, Granddad Clapp had left his family when he was 15 or 16. Coming of age during the Great Depression, he cowboyed and hired out as a farmhand. Over time he scratched together enough money to buy cropland in the Oklahoma Panhandle. He stuck with it through the monstrous dust storms of the 1930s, plowing down sand dunes on an iron-wheeled tractor. After decades of sweat and the good luck of finding oil beneath their land, Granddad and Grandma finally learned what it was like to live with plenty rather than scarcity.

So you can see why, before those terrible days of my father's illness, Granddad Clapp in my eyes had always been a tough, stoic man of the soil. And you can understand why I was surprised that, one day when we got a few minutes alone, Granddad cried. I had never seen him weep. He put a labor-weathered hand on my knee and said, "Now I've got all this money. And there's nothing I can do with it to make your dad well." I wouldn't have put it this way then, but Granddad had come eye to eye with the truth that many human goods--and health is one of them--cannot be comprehended or determined by money. There are limits to the reach of the market.

I was reminded of Granddad's hard lesson in July when the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, John Boehner, railed against reform legislation that he said would force health-care professionals "to provide their Medicare patients with counseling on 'the use of artificially administered nutrition and hydration' and other end-of-life treatments." This might pressure seniors "to sign end-of-life directives they would not otherwise sign." Boehner may have spoken disingenuously, since the legislation he protested would not have mandated end-of-life counseling; instead, it would simply have had Medicare cover the costs of any such medical counseling sought by a patient on Medicare.

Whatever his intentions, Boehner issued a salutary reminder that health-care policies should not simply or primarily be decided on a monetary basis. In this regard he helpfully quoted Joseph Cardinal Bernardin's caustic 1977 comments against policies that would "subject" human life "to a utilitarian cost-benefit calculus," bowing before "the sacred imperative of trimming a budget. …

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