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MAY I HAVE A WORD? Peter L arson

The High Cost of Immortality A man goes to the doctor for a checkup. The doctor tells him, “I have good news: You’re going to live to be 100!” The patient replies, “That is not good news. I only budgeted to live to be 90!” As we agonize over healthcare reform, I believe that joke reflects our dilemma. The good news is that Americans are living longer than ever before. The bad news is that we can’t afford it. Our everincreasing life expectancy is a wonderful blessing but also a crushing burden that is steadily pushing us toward the brink of financial ruin. In the current healthcare debate, everyone is looking for someone to blame: greedy insurance companies, profiteering drug companies, a medical delivery system that is wasteful and inefficient, a government that isn’t doing enough to help the poor. We labor under the illusion that with better regulation and more government control, the cost of medical care will be affordable for everyone. But if we’re looking for someone to blame for the high cost of healthcare, we should start by looking in the mirror. Here are the facts: In 1850, the average life expectancy for Americans was 38 years of age. By 1900 it had increased to 48 years. By 1950, we could expect an average of 66 years. By 1990, it was up to 73 years. By 2008, the average life expectancy was about 78 years. What this means is that the average American today is living 12 years longer than we did 60 years ago. That is something to celebrate, but it comes with a price tag. With every year that we add to life expectancy, the demand for prescription drugs, hospitalization, surgery, and life-extending medical procedures rises astronomically. If you think we have

a health crisis now, imagine what will happen when life expectancy for the average American reaches 80 or 90. We live in an age of medical miracles, but miracles are expensive, and someone has to pay for them. As the American population continues to age and live longer, we can expect to see more people living with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, more people needing dialysis, more people in their 80s getting knee replacements, colonoscopies, and open-heart surgery, more people with prostate cancer requiring expensive treatments. The drug commercials on television beguile us into believing that, if we take enough pills, we can live forever. But in our quest for immortality, we have created the current healthcare crisis.When it comes to buying caviar or champagne, most of us know that we can’t afford it. But when it comes to our health and longevity, we are willing to spend anything to prolong our lives for a few more years. In Greek mythology there is the story of the Sybil of Cumae, who was offered anything she wanted by the god Apollo. She asked for eternal life, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth. As a result, her body withered and decayed until it had to be stored in a jar. All that was left was her voice. The ancient Greeks understood what we seem to have forgotten — that longevity is not always a blessing and that quantity of life is not the same as quality of life. So what is the solution? Most of us, if we had a choice, would choose to “die young as old as possible,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously quipped. But how, exactly, do we determine when a person should die? Should we ration healthcare, as some have suggested, or create death panels to decide who lives and who dies? For most of us, those options are unacceptable; we simply do not trust the government to make those choices. For those of us who are Christians, I PRISM 2 0 1 0


would suggest another alternative. Instead of striving desperately to extend our lives for a few more years, perhaps we should accept our mortality with faith and courage and go home to be with Jesus. Two years ago, my church built a medical clinic in Kenya for less than $13,000. Currently, the annual budget to maintain the clinic is only about $20,000, which includes medicine and the salary of a nurse, lab technician, and clerical assistant. If some of us were willing to forgo surgery or treatments — particularly in the case of terminal illnesses where medical intervention can only prolong life in the short term rather than heal the disease or prolong life in the long term — and contribute the deductible that we would have paid, it would go a long way toward meeting the medical needs of an entire African village. As people of faith, we believe that eternal life and joy await us. And yet, we spend huge sums of money in a futile attempt to cheat death and postpone the inevitable.  The soul-searching question is: “Why?”  To forgo medical treatment is a radical proposal, I know, and it’s a decision that should be made prayerfully and with the consent of family. But as the cost of healthcare continues to spiral out of control, we would do well to consider the words of Jesus,“Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matt. 16:25). Or, in the words of Paul, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). n Peter Larson is the senior pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, Ohio. He can be reached at

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The High Cost of Immortality  

May I Have a Word? November 2010