Goring my health and yours

Posted: Sep 15, 2000 12:00 AM
Like almost 9 million other Americans, I have diabetes, a chronic, incurable and eventually life-threatening disease. Al Gore has made one thing very clear: He very much wants my vote.

In a peculiar burst of political genius -- who would have thought of turning disease into a political voting bloc? -- Al Gore in his Democratic convention speech specifically mentioned diabetes along with other big demographic disease blocs: "So we will double the federal investment in medical research. We will find new medicines and new cures -- not just for cancer, but for everything from diabetes to HIV/AIDS." Of course, with the attention to breast cancer and AIDS, it was perhaps only a matter of time before other diseases were recognized as political opportunities.

Despite this hopeful-sounding political rhetoric, designed to appeal to people like me, Al Gore's health proposals scare me. Not just as an American, but more specifically as a diabetic.

You see, like many people, I'm counting on science to come through for me -- or if not for me, then for my children and grandchildren, who are at higher risk of developing diabetes. New and better drugs for controlling diabetes are popping off the shelf each year. And within my lifetime, I'm hoping, praying and betting on a cure. Al Gore, the inventor of the Internet, likes to position himself as the friend of science and progress, as the advocate for this new "time in which human curiosity is ushering in new marvels of science and technology," as Gore put it in a June speech. But Al Gore the politician also wants to run and rail against big drug companies for making too much money, as the evil guys responsible for those "skyrocketing costs." He accuses "the other side" of "(giving) in to the big drug companies," for example.

This kind of populist us-against-them rhetoric about drugs is disturbing. A new prescription drug benefit for Medicare, for example, will be a great thing -- but unless carefully designed it will lead to price controls that will throttle new innovation, new investment and ultimately new life-saving drugs. Politicians may get elected, but people will die needlessly as a result. Health-care reform requires balancing different, vital competing interests between making current products more affordable and encouraging the private investment that is leading every day to new wonder drugs. I don't see any sign Gore gets this. Al Gore's solution? Demonize the big drug companies just as tobacco companies have been demonized -- with this important difference: While tobacco companies produce a legal product that is also at least a minor vice, drug companies invent products that save peoples' lives. By contrast, George Bush's prescription drug plan is carefully balanced to provide financial help to all seniors, especially low-income seniors, without moving toward a national health insurance plan that would eliminate the market incentives that drive new medical progress.

I'm certainly not opposed to government research, especially for basic science, but it is no substitute for the creative efforts of thousands of the best and brightest minds, eagerly trying to make their own fortune by developing new products to cure my illness and yours. How much profit is too much? Depends how much money you want flowing into the search for a cure -- the best kind of money, too: not directed by a government bureaucrat's political decisions, but by private researchers' opinions about where the best paths to a cure lie.

From where I sit, the more the better. We need to find ways to help make health care affordable. But any powerful politician who runs against the drug industry is running against the guys I'm counting on to save my and my children's lives.