g10052A recent report on NPRs “Morning Edition” about efforts by cities to get a piece of the stimulus pie carried an interview with the mayor of Eufaula, Alabama. After duly noting Eufaula’s reputation as one of the best bass-fishing spots in the world, the mayor said what might do his town the most good would be obtaining money to buy their local hospital.

Since the 1980s, I believe the mayor noted, the hospital has had 11 different owners. Everybody knows our health care system is in crisis, but few examples better highlight what I think is one of the root causes. I know nothing of this particular hospital or the series of transactions that have seen its ownership change hands at such a dizzying pace, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see something is badly out-of-whack here.

Another sign of this comes every time I drive up Interstate 95 through Daytona Beach, Florida, and glimpse the on-going construction of a huge new gleaming tower that billboards proudly claim will soon be the newest, fanciest hospital in the region. Along with the billboards there has been a spate of ads on local TV stations also touting this company’s state-of-the-art facilities and top-notch medical teams.

There’s nothing wrong with building a new hospital. What’s wrong, to me, is spending millions to market it. That money would be better spent on health care, on perhaps reducing the charges to patients instead of charging them more so the extra money can be used to buy more ads and get more business. The model is out-of-kilter.

I don’t know who owned Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when I was growing up there in the 1960s. I never recall seeing any ads or billboards for it, and my impression was that the place was generally considered to be rendering a public history3service. I’m sure they probably made money, but if they did, I’m guessing that money was plowed back into expanding facilities and improving care, not buying ads.

Another symptom of this problem blares out on TV for viewers of the network evening news broadcasts, golf tournaments, “Jeopardy,” “60 Minutes;” any program with an aging demographic. The biggest advertisers are the drug companies, hawking the latest pill to ease anything from skin maladies to erectile dysfunction.

Obviously these ads work, because millions of Americans must be trooping down to their doctor’s office to demand the drugs, which earn billions for their manufacturers. Rather than being fascinated by what new pill I can take for whatever is ailing me, I find the ads troubling, another sign of how badly the system has spun out of control. Drug companies were barred from such advertising for decades; I think it’s a question worth investigating as to whether allowing these ads, and the philosophy behind that, have improved things or helped create the crisis we now face.

I have to admit, though, that the ads are good for entertainment value. My wife and I enjoy listening to the often remarkable lists of possible side effects, from “erections lasting more than four hours” to “serious pain, discomfort or in rare cases, death.”

I have no idea how the health care system should be reformed, but common sense tells me that providing health care for profit inherently carries a deep-seated conflict of interest. I’m not arguing for socialized medicine, but somehow the balance needs to be tipped back toward public service and away from profit.

images-12The Eufaula mayor’s plea seems to be confirmation from the front lines that this idea has merit. I’m sure nobody would accuse a small town elected official in Alabama of ever advocating socialized medicine. But the mayor sees things aren’t working, and he seems to have a pretty good idea about what’s gone wrong. Put the hospital back in public hands with a board run by local folks deeply invested in their community and keep the main purpose aimed squarely at providing quality service at reasonable prices, he seems to be saying.

Sounds like pretty good common sense to me. I don’t begrudge hard-working doctors making a decent salary, corporations making profits or desperate consumers scrambling to buy the latest pill that might ease their affliction. But as the mortgage/credit mess shows, unbridled greed is just as bad a problem as unbridled government regulation. We’ve let the giant corporations run our health care system for decades, motivated more by the bottom line than public service. Can anybody make the case that we are better off than we were before?

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Mike Williams

Mike Williams

With roots in Mississippi and Alabama, Mike Williams worked for newspapers across the South for 27 years. After earning a degree in American Studies at Amherst College, he worked for Alabama newspapers in Baldwin County, Montgomery and Birmingham, followed by stints at the Miami Herald and The Atlanta Constitution. His last job was as a foreign correspondent for the Cox Newspaper chain. He now splits his time between Florida and the North Carolina mountains. His interests include race relations, history, Southern folk culture and the environment.