Saturday, September 05, 2009

Health Care and Buddhist Monastics

The health care issue is much in the news these days, so here -- for what it is worth, and it probably isn't worth all that much -- is my two cents.

I am one of those people who never gave much thought to health care, or health insurance, until it was a problem too late to fix.

As regular readers of this blog already know, I became progressively very ill and finally suffered a near fatal heart attack in 2006. This was a life-changing event in several respects, not the least of which was the financial impact. During this period, I was hospitalized over 70 times. Almost overnight, I went from being comfortably retired to utter poverty and homelessness. Yes -- homelessness: something which I thought was impossible, but which came to me like a flash, and was due to no other cause but health care costs -- an unbelievable USD $1.2 million at one point.

I usually don't like to talk about these things, but on the chance it will help someone else, perhaps it is useful.

On one occasion, when I was discharged from the hospital, I had nowhere to go. The hospital gave me a wheelchair, and some cast-off clothes, and pushed me across the street to a city park. I sat there not knowing what to do. I had lost my cell phone in the ambulance, and I couldn't remember anyone's phone number. I didn't even have 25 cents to use a pay phone! Finally, a policeman stopped and offered to assist me. He had seen this kind of thing before -- it is called "dumping" -- and it disgusted him. He helped me contact friends, and they helped me with a place to stay for a month, until my wife came back from overseas.

When she returned, I was still touch and go, and I kept winding up in cardiac intensive care. The story was always the same: when they found out I had no health insurance and no money left, they touched me up and put me on the street. Ultimately, I was able to get some limited assistance, but never again would life be the same for me.

I have met a large number of similarly situated people. I was amazed to find that a number of them had been very successful -- really, you would be surprised -- but they all had a story similar to mine. Sudden, catastrophic illness had put them on the street. On the street, it is a constant struggle to get medications, care, shelter, and food. You are never able to rest, and you are always at someone else's mercy. You run into cynical fakers, who claim to have "hospice," but no license and no attending professionals to back it up. They start talking to you about assigning life insurance benefits, and suddenly, the air becomes very dark. Many times, your spouse will divorce you. There is a story on that running in the New York Times, and you might want to give it a read.

As I think about this fairly disgusting situation -- here we are, supposedly still the richest country in the world -- I always return to the Chinese model. It is my opinion that China, the most densely populated country in the world, has one of the finest health care systems you can find.

I think this is because their system begins on the most rudimentary level -- Chinese are health-conscious people -- and proceeds from that point forward. "Surprise" illness of a catastrophic nature is not as prevalent in China as it is in the West, and there is a reason for that.

China has two completely developed health care systems: traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine. In China, Western medicine is "alternative" medicine, which is the opposite of what we have here. Traditional medicine costs less to deliver than Western medicine. That is a pure and simple fact. Traditional medicine is also holistic, and indelibly impacts the patient in lasting ways, treating the underlying condition, not just the symptom.

So, my two cents is simply this: I think we should elevate traditional medicine in America to the primary care of first resort. For trauma, it is still a ride to the ER, but for everything else, it should be traditional medicine first. I think we should take all of the money we currently dump into big pharmacy, and put it into traditional medicine instead. More educational programs, producing more traditional doctors, opening more traditional medicine clinics, serving more people at the grassroots level.

Think that will happen?

Well, as an illustration -- in California, where because of the budget crisis they have just cut back medical benefits -- they will no longer pay for traditional medical treatment. How smart is that? They keep reactive medicine but cut preventative medicine.

This craziness has had an effect on Buddhist monastics in the West. Whereas in Asia, Buddhist monastics can expect to be cared for by their host organization, there is no such assistance available in the West.

Aged or ill Western monastics are left to fend for themselves.

In one case I know of -- involving Tibetan Buddhists, who should know better -- monastics are made to sign a sort of "hold harmless" agreement, exonerating the host organization from providing any assistance in case of extreme need. These people are robe-on, robe-off "monastics," who work jobs to pay for their teacher's health care insurance, and that of their teacher's family, yet have nothing left to pay for their own health care. Apparently, their teacher -- who likes to boast about "sangha" -- thinks this is just fine.

Does that feel wholesome to you, or does it stink?

My personal opinion is that if you don't take care of your students and monastics (or can't afford to), then you shouldn't have any. Apparently, that is a minority opinion in the West. Marpa managed to feed Milarepa in the midst of all that stone-hauling, but the practice seems to have been lost on Main Street.

The Westerners who started working on their robes in the 1960s and early 1970s are now becoming prime Big Medicine fodder. They are the baby boomers, and they are getting old.

What will happen to them?

Who will care for them?

Fixing health care in America is one thing, but how about fixing health care for American Buddhists?

As it stands now, if you become ill or infirm, you are better off going to China -- or even India, for that matter. Well, why not? The people are nice, the temples are splendid, the food is wonderful, and when you drop dead they can feed you to the big birds without somebody calling the cops.

Saves you at least six grand on the funeral.

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2 reader comments:

Cliff said...

Great article. Thanks in particular for drawing my attention to the linked NY Times article.

Anonymous said...

Hello!Real nice article.I live here in Brazil and we have a public health care and despite its problems I think it´s worth keep fighting for it's continuity,which is menaced by industrious private health companies.Well,I guess we should research and learn new methods of healing and prevent diseases but here in the west "tradicional medicine Industries" are not interested in that.Well,if you know somethings about alternative medicines and preventive approaches,please post links so that we may know strategies to overcome and minimize such problems.