It’s hard to think of a tragedy worse than that which befell Elena Veach last week. A talented teacher and wife of Bloomington’s New Tech High School principle Alan Veach, Elena, just 27, fell after giving birth to her son. A victim of genetics gone bad, Elena passed from a congenital heart defect; too soon, and too tragic.

But not without a legacy. For now Elena’s family is struggling to raise funds for which to pay her posthumous medical bills. Bills accrued during her life, due now that it’s over and because it’s over.

A bake sale of sorts, for the past health needs of a vibrant individual. Covering the obligations that she, in death, was forced to lay on the feet of her survivors. Here, in the most prosperous nation on earth.

A nation, the United States, that considers itself affluent enough to spend nearly a billion dollars a day in an expeditionary, undeclared war in the wrong country that nonetheless, will not provide the most basic first-world safety net of health care, relegating instead its most iconic citizen representatives to virtual couch-cushion scrambles for change to pay for their own well-being.

Or even their own deaths.

Good money, after bad

The United States spends approximately $6,000 per person, per year, on health care. That’s twice as much as any other advanced Western nation. Do we get what we pay for? Hell, no. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States ranks 37th in the world in the overall quality of its health care -- just behind Costa Rica, Chile and Morocco.

That it was simply embarrassing. But it’s not, as Ms. Veach’s example teaches.

It’s ruinous.

All of this has been brought into stark relief by recent struggles. Our local county government is contemplating the termination of long-serving employees so that budget shortfalls arising from health care costs can be closed. IU is struggling with health care costs that are rising, according to its HR department, by 15 percent a year, nearly three times the rate of inflation in general.

Why?

According to IU, because of a devolution of health care coverage at the federal level. No longer is Washington willing to cover the rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid. Washington is bloody-mindedly committed to proving that government is fundamentally broken, by breaking it.

And, also according to IU, because of a rash of new procedures being promoted by the health care industry. No, the cost of setting a broken arm isn’t increasing by 15 percent a year, even if the bills for a broken arm are. The cost of new procedures are rising, though, and those costs are being amortized on every basic medical procedure -- including the broken arms.

One local medical provider has brought online five new “sleep rooms.” A sleep room is room in which the sleeping behavior of an individual can be studied. Primary study criteria include whether or not the individual is suffering from sleep apnea, an interruption of regular breathing activity most often associated with obesity.

Which is interesting given that the long-serving employees that our county government is considering terminating, so as to pay for rising health care costs, are parks and recreation employees. You know, the one department of local government with which citizens almost always report a positive interaction. The one department of local government dedicated to improving the health and well-being of county citizens.

Is the department getting the axe so that the cost of paying for the un-health and un-wellbeing of county citizens can be paid for.

Insanity.

Changing course

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. It doesn’t have to be insane. The United States could adopt a first-world health care system, but for the powerful financial interests and their right-wing footpersons who oppose it.

It could adopt a system similar to that of France, where doctors remain in private practice, where second opinions are not only paid for but encouraged, where the emphasis is on hospitalization, not discharge. The World Health Organization rated its medical care as the best in the World.

And where the Economist magazine, hardly a left-wing megaphone, declared, “Its hospitals gleam. Waiting lists are non-existent. Doctors still make home visits. Life expectancy is two years longer than average for the western world.”

The United States could adopt such a system, a system in which a competent government, the government of an FDR, not a GWB, solely negotiates with doctors and pharmaceutical companies over the costs of care -- as opposed to our current balkanized system where such negotiations occur between private insurance companies and caregivers, giving rise to a bizarre multi-tiered cost structure where the price of any given procedure varies according to which insurance company one has, or whether or not one has insurance at all.

We could adopt such a rational system. A system in which most of our nation’s hospitals are associated with a university, where surgeons and practitioners are likely to also be academic department heads. Where every patient is considered a research and teaching subject.

And where the cost of care is never an individual consideration.

We could have that. We could have a society where families such as Elena Veach’s don’t have to sublimate their grief as they struggle to pay the deceased’s bills. We could have a society where, instead of defending the real-estate shenanigans of the local hospital, the daily newspaper could concentrate on real health care.

We can have all this, and more.

Gregory Travis can be reached at greg@littlebear.com.