The visionary son

October 10, 1994|By Russell Baker

WHEN HE was little my son used to scoff at me. "Someday," I used to say, "when I am used up and decrepit and hovering between life and death I want to be able to call for my son the doctor, who will then come and save my life."

Hah!" he would scoff. "Hah! 'My son the doctor,' eh? A fat lot of good he'll do you in that future someday of your decrepitude, old-timer-to-be."

I mourned his contempt for my dreams. So when one day, fully grown, he came home from Harvard and said, "You may now call me your son the doctor," I was ecstatic.

"Before you go forth on your missions of mercy," I said, "be good enough to give me a free diagnosis of these unbearable pains right here in the . . ."

He stopped me before my shirt was half unbuttoned. Did I think he was one of those pill prescribers, one of those carve 'em and sew 'em scalpelmeisters, one of those Hippocratic leeches on the prostrate body of the American insurance industry?

XTC Not he, not my son the doctor. He was of a higher order, the new order prevailing in this future medical someday, which I had long ago failed to envision correctly.

In short, he was a Doctor of Medical Insurance. Years of postgraduate education and research had qualified him to treat the most expensive medical procedures ever devised.

Old-fashioned medical-type doctors lived in fear of him, and with good reason. When examining a medical doctor he could instantly detect a tendency to put excessive strain on insurance-company assets.

Diagnosing an advanced case he might prescribe surgery for the stricken doctor's HMO or hospital, as a result of which the potentially dangerous medical wastrel would be excised from the payroll.

The procedure was called a "costectomy," he said. He could do as many as 30 in a single day.

It made me proud to think of these medical money squanderers on their knees pleading with my son the insurance doctor not to cut off their access to the premium-payer's hard-earned dollar.

But wasn't it humiliating for a once-proud profession to dance to the tune of commerce? After doctors had spent all those years fighting to keep government bureaucracy out of medicine why had they surrendered so easily to corporate bureaucracy?

"Doctors aren't any smarter than anybody else," explained my son the insurance doctor. "Their handwriting just makes people think they are.

"And why," he continued, "are you flopping around on the floor like that?"

Sometimes, I explained, the pain -- right here -- became so unbearable that I collapsed and became unconscious, though other times I merely flopped about uncontrollably on the floor.

"Can you stop gasping long enough to tell me if you have medical insurance, and if so, with which company?"

I confessed to having insurance.

"Disgraceful," said the lad. "With people in your condition being insured, it's no wonder the insurance industry is hard pressed for money to put into real-estate speculations. What company was foolish enough to insure you?"

Who remembered details? I replied. What difference did it make who insured me?

"I'm ashamed of you," said my son the insurance doctor, "because you're utterly indifferent to the welfare of the private enterprise system. Your insurance company ought to be told right away of this unbearable pain and flopping around so it can cancel your coverage."

What an insurance doctor! I was proud of that boy, believe me. Even through the pain and flopping around I could see in him the virtues that had made America Number One.

"My boy, my boy," I sobbed as the light started to fail. "How wrong I was all those years ago to want you to become a medicine doctor so you could save me when I hovered between life and death. The cost of doing so might well have forced the insurance industry to shut you down for being cost-inefficient."

"Never mind that," said my son the insurance doctor. "If you die, be sure to take good notes so you can write a book if you come back. The market for memoirs by people who've died has never been hotter."

I was gone before the life insurance company could cancel my policy. It's not bad over here. Government does the insuring.

Russel Baker is a syndicated columnist.

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