HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Tax for the Cure

The disease-marathon is a rite of fall. On crisp mornings throughout the nation Americans are running. Walking. Pushing strollers. Bicycling. “Run for the cure,” the t-shirts urge. Cancer draws the most runners, but other diseases -- diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s -- have their joggers. For every malady, a 10K. Participants cluster by workplace or by family. Indeed, the “Friends and Family of ____” t-shirts stand out from the horde, garnering the loudest cheers from people along the sidelines.

Generally the weather is stupendous, the crowds exhilarating, the energy palpable. This is a delightfully non-partisan event, uniting Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals. And it does not smack of government: private citizens, in an endeavor worthy of deTocqueville’s admiration, are raising money for research. The cure for disease lies somewhere beyond the finish line.

Unfortunately, the joggers may be raising mostly endorphins.

A better strategy, though less nifty a slogan, is “Tax for the Cure.”

The joggers should also spend their time pledging to pay higher taxes and urging friends and family to make the same pledge.

A nation truly committed to “the cure” will need to spend more on education -- to invest in “human capital.” Scientists are still probing the mysteries of our bodies, struggling to understand the intersection of genes, microbes, organ systems and the environment. Finding a cure depends upon that basic research. A blockbuster drug or vaccine is built upon that work. We need more chemists, biologists, physicists, geneticists, anatomists, physiologists, and biochemists working to understand us.

From a budgetary vantage, that means we need to spend lots more money on education. We need to beef up the basic sciences in our universities. And since the PhDs of tomorrow are today in elementary school, we need to pour money into all levels of education. The two-tiered system of miserable inner-city schools for impoverished, non-English-speaking children, will have to go. We need the scientific manpower, and can’t waste the potential talents of a fifth of our nation. We need to enlist everybody in this drive for knowledge.

From there, we need to invest in medical research -- that means lots more money for federally-funded studies. We’ll have to double the National Institutes of Health budget. Although private funds support some research, in this country Uncle Sam pays for the bulk of research. We’ll need to use federal dollars to sic scientists upon all the maladies that beset us.

Once those scientists have isolated possible treatments (if not cures) for a disease, we will need clinical trials. In a gold standard trial, researchers follow two groups: one group will get the experimental treatment; the other, a placebo. Intense scrutiny will suggest whether the experimental group fared appreciably better. The larger -- hence, the more expensive -- the trial, the more we can rely on the results. Trials can take years of monitoring.

Once those drugs make it to market, we’ll still need intense oversight, to watch for side effects. We’ll need to double the budget of the Food and Drug Administration. Maybe triple it.

Finally, once researchers have found a cure, we’ll have to let all Americans benefit. Our country divides into the “insured” and the “uninsured.” The uninsured -- 47 million of them -- have limited access to medical care, let alone blockbuster cures. In fairness to those people who have the disease but not the insurance, we’ll have to enact some form of national coverage. The tab mounts.

The plunging temperatures of fall, the breathtaking foliage, the camaraderie of friends -- all beckon joggers. The 10K race gives participants, even those who walk the course, a high. That high is wonderful. And healthy. Joggers, though, should recognize that their healthy high is just that. It is not necessarily the road to a cure.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2007

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