The Health Care that Billionaires (and Non-Billionaires) Need

by James P. Pinkerton

So Steve Jobs is taking medical leave from Apple. The man who built his company into a $320 billion colossus has suffered from pancreatic cancer, which spread to his liver — he received a liver transplant in 2009. Now, sadly, he is sick again. What do you think he’s thinking now? He’s probably not thinking to himself, “Thank God for Obamacare,” because health insurance is irrelevant to him, and to other billionaires.

Perhaps instead Jobs is thinking, “How come they never cured cancer? They cured polio, they cured smallpox, they dramatically pushed back on malaria and AIDS — why not pancreatic and liver cancer? And why are replacement organs so hard to get? Why aren’t they being mass-produced, like, say, personal computers?”

Those were questions that were better asked twenty years ago, before our politics became transfixed by the idea that health insurance was more important than health itself. The rich — including Jobs, now 55 — mostly sat out that debate, although plenty of Forbes 400 types supported Clintoncare and Obamacare. In the meantime, bureaucratic and regulatory restrictions piled up: The number of new drugs approved by the FDA has fallen by two-thirds since the ’90s.

Yet every billionaire eventually discovers that vast wealth is little better than health insurance when it comes to securing good health. Wealth and health insurance are both forms of finance, and whether the plan is deluxe or bare-bones, finance is retrospective — after you get sick, people get paid to treat you. And yet what plutocrats — and all of us — really need is prospective, even preemptive, medical science, the kind that produces not just wellness plans, but actual vaccines and cures. The rich can afford the best doctors, and the plushest hospital suites, but if that scientific spadework isn’t done in advance, if the right cure doesn’t exist when it’s needed, it can’t be bought on short notice at any price. The polio vaccine, for example, took 17 years; genuinely effective treatments for AIDS took 15 years. Cures cannot be impulse purchases. They can’t be bid for on eBay, or even at Sotheby’s.

Of course, there’s never a guarantee of success in scientific research, only the reasonable confidence that the basic techniques that have worked in the past will work in the future.

In fact, the process of creating what we can call Serious Medicine is so costly, complicated, and time-consuming that it is more akin to fighting a war than it is to conspicuously consuming. That is, resources need to be mobilized, years in advance, and lawyers, regulators, and rent-seekers need to be shooed away from the main effort — the search for the cure. Not everything works like that in our society, of course, but then, we don’t win every war.

We all wish Jobs the best in his health battle. But we should understand that medical wars are won when everyone pulls together in the same great life-saving goal.

— James P. Pinkerton served as a domestic-policy aide in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses. He is the editor of SeriousMedicineStrategy.org and a contributor to the Fox News Channel.