Health care reform is probably the biggest legislative goal of the Obama presidency. I have no doubt that, by the end of the summer, some sort of expensive and complex bill will get signed into law. But, as with the carbon control bill, my hunch is that what emerges will be toothless and nearly pointless. The money just isn't there for a truly radical reform, and the fact is that the majority of the public is reasonably well served by our existing system and doesn't want the boat rocked. Our existing system covers about 80% of the public. I'm sure that a significant chunk of this 80% is unhappy with their coverage. But if 1 in 4 people with private or employer covered health care want some government program to replace it, then you still have 60% of the population satisfied with what they have. If you're a congressman or senator, and you have the choice of pleasing 40% of the population and disrupting the status quo of 60%, you are probably going to stand by the status quo.
However, I think that there are things that our government could do that would be politically popular, save costs in the long run, and actually accomplish some good. Our government is pretty good at selling wars. We have a war on drugs that has filled our prisons to overflowing. We have a war on terror that leads us to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to fight wars and inconvenience travellers around the world. Attach the word "war" to a cause, and suddenly budgets are no problem.
So, I think it's time that we have a War on Cancer. We are at a unique moment in human history. Since humans first became aware that they were humans, the functions of the human body have remained mysterious to them. Humans have been humans for at least a hundred thousand years. During this time, we've worked under a lot of very bad theories of how the body worked. The last century, however, saw a genuine revolution in our understanding of the body. This revolution pales in comparison to what we will learn in the next hundred years. In the last year of the last century, we mapped the human genome for the first time. Essentially, we finally opened the pages of the owners manual to the human body, and we haven't even had a decade to process all the information inside. Within the human genome, we will find the causes for entire categories of diseases and once we find the causes, we can craft cures.
Fifty years ago, if we'd declared a War on Cancer, we probably could have thrown a trillion dollars at it and not produced much in the way of results. Today, we have the technology available to process as much information as we can gather. Curing cancer is now mainly a function of gathering information and designing the tools and software to turn this data into something of practical value. Designing these tools is going to be very, very expensive. We do throw a lot of money at cancer research already. According to various numbers I've been able to google, it looks like the federal government spends upward of 10 billion a year on research. 10 billion isn't a trivial number unless you compare it to the figure being discussed as the cost of Obama's health care plan: 1.6 trillion.
A lot of our health care costs today are driven by the need to pay for new equipment and medicines. Machines for CAT scans, MRI, and PET are outstanding tools for detecting cancers at an early stage. They are also crazy expensive, so getting a scan on one of these machines runs into the thousands of dollars. (Also in this cost is the training of people who can run the machine, and the training of people who can read the results.) The same can be said of building a predator drone and arming it with missiles, along with the training of people to fly them. Senators will throw billions toward weapons without blinking an eye. Why not spend similar amounts of money on medical equipment? If the government picked up the cost of all imaging equipment, and insurance companies were no longer shelling out thousands every time one of these scans was performed, it could provide genuine savings that could be passed on to consumers.
I don't want to put forth the idea that I think curing cancer is going to be easy. To start with, there isn't a single disease that constitutes cancer. Cancer is really 200 different diseases, all with their own challenges.
Still, imagine what could be accomplished if the federal goverment spent as much on a War on Cancer as it does on the War on Terror. Cancer is a far more clear and present danger than terrorism to the average citizen. Cancer kills roughly 1500 people a day: every two days, it's a wide-spread, yet somehow invisible 9-11. Imagine if the US spent as much designing and building a new generation of imaging machines as it spends on designing and building the next generation of weapons.
A cure for cancer is waiting out there in our future. If we can accelerate the research so that we've mastered this disease by 2020 instead of 2050, we could enjoy 30 years of cost savings, assuming we could drive the cost of treating some cancers down to the cost of treating, say, a broken leg.
Perhaps this is just science fiction dreaming. Perhaps there is no cure. But, the War on Drugs can't be won, the War on Poverty hasn't been won, and the War on Terror will never be won. A hopeless cause isn't neccessarily a worthless cause. Politicians like getting behind stuff like this. And, unlike some of these wars, the situation isn't hopeless. We are already seeing declines in deaths from cancer, a few fractions a percent each year. Can we change this so that 10 or 20 or 30% fewer people die each year?
At the risk of overusing a phrase: Yes we can.