The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

Vetting the Health Care Issue

September 1, 2009

I caught part of a radio call-in show the other day on which a vet was fielding questions about Addison's disease among basset hounds and a cocker spaniel's hypothyroid problem and what can be done about a bulldog who snores (he needs to lose weight), and it was interesting to discover the excellent medical care that dogs have come to expect these days. The vet was herself a dog parent, as she put it, and there was genuine feeling in her voice when she discussed the bassets' hormonal problems, something I haven't heard in the debate over health care for humans this summer.

I have not been a pet parent for 20 years so perhaps I'm not up to speed here, but back in the day, dogs slept in the garage or on the porch so they could defend the home against socialism, and if they snored, it definitely was their problem and not ours. Ditto hypothyroidism. And there was a death panel around whose name was Dad.

Dad grew up on a farm and was not overly sentimental about animals. He did not purchase jewelry for them or talk to them in a high-pitched voice. He would have blanched at the thought that the average cost of a visit to the vet with your cat is now $172. The chance of Dad paying that much to care for Snowball was about the same as Snowball's chances in hell. But that has all changed, and now the American people shell out upwards of $10 billion a year for health care for pets.

Fine. Not an issue. Nobody called in to the show to suggest that the knee operation on the 14-year-old golden retriever (a recent cancer survivor) shows a level of caring far beyond what we extend to three-fourths of the world's human population. I could have, but I don't care to upset the golden retriever community. Live and let live is my motto, dear reader. If your gerbil Mitzi needs a new heart valve and you've got the fifteen grand to spend on it, I am not here to stand in your way. Period.

And so the summer fades into September. Here on the upper Mississippi we've already felt an autumnal chill. I have gone to the State Fair and fed my child her allotment of corn dogs and deep-fried cheese curds and led her through the poultry barn so she knows where the omelet comes from and now it's time for her to resume science and mathematics and learn the subjunctive mood.

Here is an example of the subjunctive: Had we known that Republicans were so paranoid about public health, we would have packaged health care reform differently and come up with better slogans.

Perhaps there should be a public pet option.

There was real sympathy for the parent of the bassets with the adrenal deficiency, whereas the 48 million uninsured Americans (of whom two-thirds come from a family with at least one full-time worker) are merely a big fat statistic and so far Democrats have failed to produce a poster child. We can sort of imagine the misery of walking into an emergency room with no money, no plastic, no Blue Cross card, and trying to obtain treatment for some ailment that doesn't involve bone fragments protruding from the skin, but it doesn't speak to the heart the way an injured dog does.

Animals love us unconditionally and we love them back, maybe more than we love our neighbors, and that's just the truth, Ruth. People can be irksome, petty, especially raggedy ones — poverty does not always bring out the best in folks — and that's why it's difficult to get people to care about the uninsured.

If you put a pet option in the health care reform scheme, Republicans would be in a bind. It's one thing to oppose big government taking over from those little mom-and-pop insurance companies, but do you favor throwing Mr. Mittens out the car window when he gets old and feeble and needs an IV because he can't chew his kibble? You'd have weepy pet parents at town hall meetings waving photographs of kittycats in need of new kidneys, and finally you'd start to see some empathy. People love their animals, and if we could just agree that everybody in America should receive the same level of care enjoyed by an elderly golden retriever, we could be done with this and get ready for the World Series.

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

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