Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Digital Health Care: A Parable

I didn't really need to do it. But there it was, free for the taking: a forty dollar coupon. And the government was offering it to me, no strings attached.

As you probably know, next February, TV as we have known it since the days of Uncle Miltie, will disappear. Along with it, we will bury all those mysteries we wondered about when we were kids, like "Why is there no channel 1?" or "Why did they pick 13 channels?" and the long-solved "What does the 'UF' mean that is right after the thirteen on my knob?" I remember an ad later for a TV that said, "It gets all 82 channels." I don't think there's been an 82-channel tuner for quite a while now. But I have really digressed. Those reliable old channels, whether 12 or 82 or whatever number, have one big fault in this digital world: they take up way too much bandwidth. And those tiny slivers of digital channels can hold tons of information. The only channel that really gets to my house without static has at least two other channels streamlined in the narrow-band digital signal which my TV does not get. So I really understand the win/win situation of the FCC: with digital channels mandated, antenna-fed TV will improve, and all those gigantic dinosaur channels can be sliced up into delightful digital frequencies as well, to be sold for high dollar to wireless companies, communication agencies, and public service. It's a wise business decision, and I stand in awe that someone at the FCC figured that out. It must have been outsourced.

My TV. I bought it at KMart seven years ago when it was on sale. I really can't tell you how many channels it gets, because any time I do auto channel set-up it does it differently. But I do know this: it's not a digital TV. So I came to the realization that, on a clear February morning in 2009, the TV will no longer work. But that's almost OK with me. I've got "The Andy Griffith Show" on DVD, as well as many other favorite shows. The DVD player will continue to work, along with the ancient VCR (also analog). But I will lack one thing: local news and weather, and some college football games this fall. So I needed a digital tuner; after all, why buy a new digital TV, not to mention HDTV, etc, to get one channel here in the sticks? We have no cable. I could buy a satellite dish, but why pay 30-80 dollars a month so I can watch twice as many commercials in the middle of cut-up shows?

I am a perfect candidate for a digital tuner: we have two TV's, both analog. We don't have satellite. We will never have cable -- I'm 10 miles from the nearest cable connection. So I went online and filled out the information, being totally truthful. The last part of the form, by the way, is where you have to swear you're telling the truth -- Scout's honor -- and I had the sneaky suspicion they still didn't believe me. Oh, wait. There was another thing to fill out: one of those things where you read the scrambled box with lines through it and then type in what you see so you can prove that you're a human being and not a robot like Wall-E or something.

I did all that, and crossed my heart and hoped to die as I sent it. And got back the "request denied" page. It seems that I am living in either a multi-family dwelling or a business establishment. If there's another family in here, I've never met them, but that does explain who keeps forgetting to close doors, who's not throwing away their garbage or cleaning up after themselves. It must be another family; the IRS can vouch that there's no money-making business under this roof.

They had a little link to click to appeal the decision. I clicked that link and it gave me the "I'm not a robot" test again, and kicked me out without even saying goodbye. I went back to the site, and, paraphrasing, it said, "Oh, it's you again; I told you to beat it!" So then, I went to the phone and dialed the 24/7 hotline. After talking to computers (why do they get to be computers and robots and I don't? Shouldn't I be able to give them one of those squiggly lines tests?) a very courteous voice said, "We're sorry, but your request is rejected. If you think this is in error, please e-mail us at %#*&^@*&^%">%#*&^@*&" -- at least that's what it sounded like before they hung up on me without repeating the e-mail or telling me which button of the phone to push to hear the address again -- after I retrieved the pen that was within arm's reach.

So I dialed the number again, because I've heard if you work at those automated things long enough, you'll finally reach a human. It took a few minutes, but I finally got to dial a "0," and it thanked me and told me to hold until the next available human being could answer. Then, in about ten seconds, it told me it was impossible to talk to a human right now, and hung up on me -- click -- and gave me a dial tone.

Yesterday I found an email address on the website, though I don't think it's the one that I was given over the phone. So I wrote them and told them my plight. Last night, just before bed, I was pleased to find a response from the FCC in my inbox. Finally, I thought. It said, "Thank you for contacting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This is an automated message to confirm that we have received your correspondence. We will review your information to determine how we can best serve you." Another robot.

When Dark February arrives, I will do what I should have done in the first place. I will go to a store, buy a digital receiver, and pay for it with the money I have saved in seven months, which is a drop in the bucket. Then I will come home and watch Magic TV. And I'll do it without welfare. When I think about how free the government is with our tax dollars -- they are going to send out millions of these rebates because people can't save 40 dollars in a year -- I'm ashamed I even tried. In fact, if the FCC relents and sends me a coupon, I will tear it up.

Now, what does this have to do with Health Care? I think you can guess. Big Government has shown it can't even deliver a simple product to the very people it was designed for (I'll repeat: if anyone qualified for one of those tuners, it was me). I'm glad I wasn't applying online for heart surgery or an appendectomy. Robots don't have hearts or appendices (appendexes?), and might not understand that I do. I also doubt that most politicians have the former, and know they've all removed the latter to use up the money in their excellent health insurance program that I pay for.

Why are 200 million people -- or more -- willing to trust the Federal Government to manage our health care when they can't even send you a Wal-Mart coupon? What scares me more is to realize that for every person like myself: someone with an honest request for a genuine need, who is turned down, there are probably two or three who have requested these coupons under pretense, and who are going to get them, and turn this government freebie around and take the FCC -- or whoever is doing this -- for huge sums of money.

Now you see where this is going. I will have no problem with saving for electronic equipment: it's affordable and dependable, with good guarantees. Why? Because the government, outside of this one little experiment, has not ventured into the world of electronics, and so that realm remains free to grow, unfettered, constantly improving. Can you imagine what a PC would look like today if the government had funded the research and there had not been capitalists like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates? You would not be reading what I'm writing right now. It would be on a legal pad, scrawled out by a cheap Bic pen. I can't "just save up" for medical care because it's been living on government dole for several decades, and now is too fat and lazy to move, and the average American is incapable of paying medical expenses out of pocket.

Very soon, congress will again take up the issue of Socialized Medicine. They want to help us, and I'm reminded of Ronald Reagan's famous quote, "The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help." I hope you live long enough to enjoy your new digital converter that Uncle Sam was so nice to subsidize for you. Maybe if this works out, the next presidential candidates in 2012 can guarantee us a "computer in every room," or something like that.
But wait! I've got an even better idea. Why didn't the government send us all messages when they figured this thing out, say, three years ago? They could have said something like, "Dear citizen. In three years, your analog TV will no longer work. That gives you thirty-six months to save up for something that does. If you save $1.50 a month starting now, you will be able to buy a converter. Five dollars will get you a VCR with a digital tuner. If you start saving ten dollars a month now, you can buy a DVD recorder with the works, including a digital tuner, and probably have a little cash left over. Twenty dollars a month will get you HD in addition to the digital. This little 'heads up' is brought to you by your government, which wants you to be smart, sensible, and self-sufficient. Don't come crying to us in February of 2009."
Of course, if they did that, people would actually start getting smarter and more self-sufficient, and they might become producers instead of consumers and then more "red" people would get elected, so you see their dilemma. It might even affect the medical industry. I know it's hard. I was even temporarily "blue" this week (If this red/blue thing seems strange to you, please click here for my explanation).

I'm sorry, but are we really stupid enough to think that the US Government can be Marcus Welby?


LiquidFox said...

Ahh yes. But take for example the welfare known as "Unemployment." IF you were to suddenly find yourself without a job for a period of time would you file for unemployment since that is a socialist welfare practice?

And people always work harder to get something for free now than to save up and buy something at the same cost or less (in terms of physical labor) later.

BParsons said...

Thanks for the comment and insight. I've never had to file for unemployment, so I'd have problems making judgments of anyone who's had to go through that. I hope I never have to find out. But as far as "free" things from the government, it's caused a lot of us to lose the old ability to actually build up value and earn something. I've only learned the lesson as an adult.

Unemployment, in the right place, is a charitable act. It would be better if friends helped out friends who are between jobs, but we all know that.

But when Uncle Sam decides to try to sort our our medical care, we end up with -- well -- what we have right now.

And anybody who cannot save 40 dollars in one year is beyond any material help that can be given.