the robots… are coming

USA Today led with this story about rising military health care costs on Thursday. Reading just the headline, you might think, “Oh great. Another bloated, inefficient government health care program.” And indeed the statistics cited are alarming:

Total U.S. spending on health care has climbed from nearly $1.5 trillion in 2001 to an estimated $2.7 trillion next year, an 84% increase.

As a share of overall defense spending, health care costs have risen from 6% to 9% and will keep growing, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kathleen Kesler, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

But look closer. What’s causing this rise in health care costs? Is it that we pay doctors too much? Is it overuse of medical resources by patients who are shielded from the expense? Is it the passage of Obamacare?

In this case, no. The costs are driven by two things:

The rapid rise has been driven by a surge in mental health and physical problems for troops who have deployed to war multiple times and by a flood of career military retirees fleeing less-generous civilian health programs….


Behavioral-health counseling sessions for troops and family members rose 65% since 2004. The Pentagon paid for 7.3 million visits last year — treatment of 140,000 patients each week, according to TRICARE numbers….. Many new patients are children suffering anxiety or depression because of a parent away at war. Children had 42% more counseling sessions last year than in 2005, TRICARE numbers show.

and also

In addition to mental issues, multiple combat tours have created more strains on joints, backs and legs, Pentagon statistics show. Medical visits for such problems rose from 2.8 million in 2005 to 3.7 million in 2009.

We might draw a cautionary lesson from this, I think: in the future, we should count all costs, not merely upfront costs, when considering going to war for less-than-urgent reasons. And not just the direct costs either — by allowing two hugely expensive wars to become our national priority for seven years, we lost opportunities — opportunities to deal with health care sooner, not to mention nipping the financial crisis in the bud. Taking both of those latter steps would have meant fewer retirees — not to mention semi-employed hobos like me — buying into Tricare instead of a crapped-out private plan.

Is there any good news? Well, sort of. The USA Today article was accompanied by a photo of Tammy Duckworth, a former helicopter pilot who lost her legs in Iraq and is now an Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the V.A.

Ms. Duckworth meeting with SGT Derick Hurt.

As you can see, Ms. Duckworth and SGT Hurt both have excellent prosthetics. It’s an old and tired cliche that wars improve our medical capabilities, but it’s true. Body armor has reduced combat deaths in Iraq,even from IED blasts, and so much of the medical expertise developed in the Iraq war is dedicated to the extremities — replacing arms and legs and even the complicated mechanics of hands and faces.

Here’s a “TED talk” by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, about being asked by the DOD to develop robotic arms for wounded vets. (If you want to skip to the demonstration of the arm, it starts about 45 seconds from the end.)

America hasn’t always done its best by its vets, but one good thing about our ambivalence over these recent wars is that it has often translated into a serious solicitousness for the well-being of the common soldier; we are keenly aware of our prior history with war vets, and we are, this time, attempting to do right by those we send out into the world to do violence on our behalf.

I often argue on this blog that we ought to do right by everyone else who serves America, too: that we would be better served by providing good medical care to farmers and teachers and cops and entrepreneurs and baristas, as well. But our sentimental sense of duty toward our soldiers is a good start. So here’s to a future of truly amazing prosthetics, the development of which was paid for out of our tax dollars for the sake of a few, and which will incidentally come to benefit us all.

And now some music as we ponder our semi-robotized future:


One response to “the robots… are coming

  1. I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords.

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