The white-marble Rayburn House Office Building, in Washington DC, looks like a giant courts building or a central bank, fully intimidating and imposing in its hulking stony blockiness.
And the US Congress, of course, is an institution best known for its tedium, albeit a tedium that is regularly punctuated by fiery partisan combat. On a typical day, the Rayburn building–acronymed as RHOB–is a place where politicos and bureaucrats struggle for and against some special interest, yea or nay, on regulation or appropriation. And the biggest single activity in RHOB, or in any of the other five office edifices on Capitol Hill, is answering the phone and answering the mail, both snail-mail and e-mail. In a country of 318 million souls, plenty of people have the urge to write their Member of Congress–and they want an answer, pronto. So the life of a “Hill rat” is a life of constituent service. From museum tours to Social Security checks, from requests for flags that have flown over the Capitol to requests for an admission to one of the Service Academies, there’s always work, work, work, to be done.
In such a grinding environment, one never knows when genuine hope will pop up. Indeed, amidst the thrum of institutional activity, a sighting of hope might seem improbable.
Yet on Tuesday, inside the marbled majesty of RHOB, several hundred people gathered for an expression of hopeful humanity, a flowering of bipartisan cooperation on behalf of an important issue–namely, medical cures. Come to think of it, it’s fair to say that medical cures are more than an important issue; they are, in the most literal sense, a vital, life-saving issue.
In fact, not many in Washington have noticed, but the number of new drugs, antibiotics, and medical devices approved by the Food and Drug Administration is lower today–dangerously lower–than it was 15 or 20 years ago.
How did this fall-off happen? How did this “cure crash” occur, right under the noses of Washington officialdom? In truth, the decline of medicine in America is deeply ironic, insofar as American politics has been vexed by healthcare controversies for a full quarter-century: first, the Hillarycare debate of the 90s and then, more recently, Obamacare. In other words, while DC politicos have been fighting over health insurance, the more fundamental issue of health itself–is there a treatment, or a cure, for what ails us?–has been mostly ignored.
And so it has come to pass, for example, that we have a raging epidemic of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), costing the US economy some $200 billion a year–headed toward a cumulative $20 trillion by mid-century–and no effective treatment. Thus we are in a paradoxical situation: We have extended a financial commitment to provide healthcare coverage for all, and yet we haven’t made a similar scientific commitment to actual cures. The message seems to be: Uncle Sam can guarantee you a card that says “health insurance” on it, but nobody has bothered to make sure that a health-insurance policy can, in fact, buy health. (Even if Obamacare were repealed, we might note, Uncle Sam’s commitment to the elderly, through Medicare and Medicaid, would continue.)
Thus, if present trends continue, we face a ghastly and costly future: We will be paying trillions to warehouse AD patients as they decline into dependency and dementia–providing the ultimate in compassionate, but futile, care. Lots of expenditure, but no hope.
Fortunately, one little-known but very powerful Member of Congress has said, “Enough!” Yet he said it quietly, because, well, that’s how Fred Upton rolls. Upton is the 60-something Republican Representative for Michigan’s Sixth District, in the southwest corner of the Wolverine State. (The flamboyance in the family is seen in model/actress Kate Upton, his niece.)