So Sue Lowden – the Republican challenger to Harry Reid – is waxing nostalgic for the days when we could barter for health care, instead of having to mess with all that expensive, bureaucratic health insurance. Here’s the money quote (or the bartered-chicken quote?) at Big Think:
“You know, before we all started having health care,” she recently said in an interview, “in the olden days our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor, they would say I’ll paint your house. I mean, that’s the old days of what people would do to get health care with your doctors. Doctors are very sympathetic people. I’m not backing down from that system.”
Badtux suggests paying Lowden in chickens, should she become the next senator from Nevada. What an excellent idea! She can run her budget like my paternal grandfather did.
My grandpa was one of those country doctors who did accept payment in kind. Born in 1879, he earned his M.D. from the University of Nebraska in 1907, one of a graduating class of 18 (including one woman). He wound up practicing in North Dakota – whether for humanitarian reasons or due to a love affair gone bad, we’ll likely never know – in a poor part of the state populated mostly by German-Russians. These folks were originally from southwest Germany, where inheritance patterns split landholdings into ever smaller, less sustainable parcels. They migrated to the Crimea in search of an easier life, and thence to North Dakota. I know, I know – they must have had a very flexible notion of the “easy life.”
Once tucked into their large but chilly homesteads, the German-Russians stayed. Where else would they go? They were still poor, for the most part. And they continued to catch smallpox, measles, cancer, and the occasional pregnancy.
My grandpa was the doctor for much of south-central North Dakota. There were a few midwives in the area, too, but over time he attended more of the births.
And yes, sometimes his patients paid him in chickens. My mom describes him thus:
He had a gruff exterior and a very soft heart. I know that the people in Streeter idolized him (some may have feared him a little), and nearly everyone could tell of a time that he came to their farm in the middle of the night and dstayed until the patient was out of danger and usually refused to take any payment, especially if they were poor.
There were days when a chicken was more than a family could spare.
At the end of his life, the town’s very modest public park was devoted to his memory. I like knowing it’s there, even if the play equipment is decrepit. I never knew him; he died in 1961, two years before I was born. It’s a lovely testimonial to his putting patients above profits, which really does seem quaint and almost saintly in the new millennium.
But here’s the trick. My grandpa could afford to work for chickens – or eggs – or even a big old goose egg only because he also had patients who paid him! What’s more, he had much more substantial savings than his neighbors, having invested in Standard Oil around 1900. He and my grandma lived modestly, despite her pretensions to being the town’s aristocracy. (Well, the town was small enough that she sort of was the queen bee.)
My grandma fought with my grandpa over his generosity. He saw the grinding need up close. She saw it at a remove, and only through the lens of a trying to maintain a reasonably bourgeois household on the prairie. They fought bitterly anyway, and the chickens (and all the other bartered goods) became just one more bone of contention.
My grandpa did quite a lot of good, I believe. But it was no way to run a practice, and even less so today, when new doctors may start out burdened with six-figure debts. It also was no way to nurture a marriage. The whole thing was unsustainable, even then. Add in an MRI and a CT and an angiogram … and my grandpa could never have worked for free.
I suspect, though, that he would have been fascinated by the new technologies. He was smart and curious – qualities solely need in the practice of medicine as well as in the debates over its reform.
Frankly, though? As much as I like chickens, I don’t see much of a place for them in Washington. We’re gonna need tougher critters than chickens to fix our broken health system. Unless, perhaps, they’re as fierce as this guy looks – yet not bird-brained.