TCS Daily


A Mushrooming Crisis

By Louis James - March 9, 2004 12:00 AM

Last summer's heat wave showed what a lethally flawed idea socialism is, when France's socialist medical system proved so inept and almost 15,000 people died. That is such a huge number that most people find it hard to comprehend ... a lifetime would not suffice to know the full price paid in misery by all the families of those who died. However, there was one death last summer, not related to those in France, that really drives home what a bad idea socialism in medicine (or anything else) is.

Virgis Daukas lives in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he is the International Society for Individual Liberty's representative. He runs an English summer camp for Eastern Europeans, using pro-market tracts as textbooks, that attracts students from many lands formerly behind the Iron Curtain. He once organized the toilet-papering of the presidential palace in Vilnius ... he is a bit of a maverick, but of the jovial, lovable kind.

Virgis' family is one among many in Eastern Europe who enjoyed the pastime of picking fresh mushrooms. Or, they did until last summer, when a poisonous variety of mushroom that looks just like the edible one started appearing in unprecedented numbers -- growing among the edible ones. Sadly, Virgis, his wife Ilona, and his son Bartas (think Bart Simpson with a Russian accent), seasoned mushroom pickers though they were, were fooled by the poisonous kind. All three ended up hospitalized. Ilona, who had a hobbit-like love of mushrooms, ate the most and died. Virgis was very ill for days, the doctors giving him about a 50/50 chance of surviving, but he finally pulled through.

Bartas was checked into a children's hospital, and he bounced back pretty quickly, but was then devastated, as were an older brother and sister, to find out that his mother had died. Virgis took it hard, too, initially blaming himself for not spotting the poisonous mushrooms. (He didn't know then that it had become something of an epidemic.)

However, it turns out that there was genuine blame, and it was not his. When the elder Daukases were admitted to their state-run hospital, Virgis told the doctors to pump Ilona's stomach, because throughout her life she had been unable to regurgitate on her own. The hospital did not do this for either of them. The doctors said it was hopeless to pump a stomach six hours after ingestion. However, Virgis was still coughing mushrooms up, as long as 16 hours after he'd eaten them. Bartas had his stomach pumped at the pediatric hospital, where they considered the procedure routine, and recovered relatively easily.

Worse yet, they later found out that there is a medicine that can neutralize the poison of this particular mushroom, but it was not administered to any of them. When Virgis learned of this, after Ilona's death, he was told that it isn't licensed for use in the hospital he and Ilona were in. It's available in Lithuania, but the doctors did not request it. When asked why, they said that it was because it is expensive. If someone needed it and could not afford it, it could create problems.

So, it was a policy decision, made by the medical bureaucrats running the "free" state hospital, not to have the medicine available and not to even inform patients of the possible treatment.

In the aftermath, Virgis wanted to hold the negligent doctors responsible for their actions. But he was told that he could not be allowed to have access to his wife's hospital records. When he sought records from the emergency call to the hospital, he found that the records had been altered. When he asked for an official independent investigation, he found that those charged with this responsibility were not independent but were part of the same hospital administration.

There's the compassion of socialism for you -- after all, it's the needs of the whole "social organism" that matter, not the petty needs of individuals.

When Virgis went to the Lithuanian media with his story, they were not interested. (Shut up, little individual cell, the social organism doesn't want to hear griping.) People actually told Virgis that he should just be happy that the hospital was there for him and Bartas at all!

Click here to see some pictures of these little cells, so unimportant, so expendable from the social organism's point of view.

And now we hear that the self-anointed gurus of public policy relating to medicine in the U.S., the Institute of Medicine, are urging the U.S. to adopt so-called universal coverage by 2010.

However, there is no such thing as a social organism in this world -- it is just a metaphor, an often destructive and sometimes deadly metaphor. Human beings are not just cells of some gargantuan and uncaring social organism, like temporarily useful skin cells, to be flaked away like so much dandruff, after their usefulness is done. What is real, what we can see, and touch, and treasure, are people. And they are not expendable means to greater ends, but each a unique, irreplaceable end, in and of him- or herself, free to make the most they can of their lives.

And that is the beauty of the free market; it allows individualized responses to individual needs, rather than imposing one-size-fits-all policies that seem best to would-be social engineers. Universal coverage is no boon if it is universally second rate.

This is even true in places like Lithuania, where they have socialized medicine, but everyone knows that for the best treatment the private clinics are the places to go. Unfortunately for the Daukas family, the ambulance crews took them to the state hospitals where they were registered. It's too late for Ilona Daukas, but not for the living, who can still fight the spread of socialized medicine wherever it threatens.

Louis James is the CEO of Free-Market.Net.


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