The Cost of Health Care -- in Live Chickens

Sue Lowden, a Republican challenging for Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-NV) Senate seat, suggested that instead of purchasing health insurance, patients should offer to pay their doctors' bills in chickens.
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Sue Lowden, a Republican challenging for Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-NV) Senate seat, boosted herself to the top of late-night monologues Monday by suggesting that instead of purchasing health insurance, patients should control their health care costs by offering to pay their doctors' bills in chickens.

Lowden not only is serious, but she's upped the ante, now urging employers to skip buying health insurance for their employees in favor of the barter system:

"I'm telling you that this works. As an employer, having your employees barter a chicken beats paying for health care. I'm serious about this. Doctors like chickens."

Of course, in our grandparents' time, medical care was much less technological, and therefore much less expensive, than it is now. (My father, a retired general practitioner, can still tell as much from palpating a patient's abdomen or listening carefully for crepitus while articulating a patient's sore knee than most modern internists can from reading an MRI or CT scan.) So I decided to figure out how much some typical modern medical procedures cost -- in live chickens.

As my base unit of currency, I chose a live, day-old baby Cornish X Rock chick (good meat chickens, 4-5 lbs. in just 6-8 weeks) from the Murray McMurray chicken hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, which cost $1.92 each. (Of course, there's also a cost to housing and feeding the chickens to maturity, but I'm willing to write those expenses off as entertainment. It's worth paying something just for the fun of freaking out the HOA president by having chickens running around the cul-de-sac.)

Here's what some procedures cost, in Cornish X Rock chickens and, for a sense of scale, in the number of semi tractor-trailer "big rig" trucks it would take to haul those chickens (at 6,000 chickens per truck):

Laparoscopic appendectomy: $22,718.70, or 11,833 chickens (two trucks).

Silicone gel breast implants, surgeon's fee (not including implants themselves, hospitalization, etc.), according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery: $3,813, or 1,986 chickens (one-third of one truck).

Surgically repairing the leg Arnold Schwarzenegger broke skiing in 2007: $55,000 (28,646 chickens, or nearly five trucks).

Average MRI in San Diego, California: $2,826 (1,472 chickens, or about 1/4 of a semi truck). (Cost to operate an MRI machine for one year: $800,000 (416,667 chickens, or about 69 trucks).)

One thing Lowden may not have considered is a new study showing that bacteria in feathers and debris blowing off chicken haulers can cause illness in humans. This suggests that switching to a chicken-based medical economy, which of course seems at first like a stellar idea, could accidentally drive up the demand for healthcare, increasing medical costs instead of reducing them.

Of course, if you don't want to spend $100,000 (52,000 chickens/nine trucks) or more on your bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, you could always join the thousands of Americans now obtaining health care through medical tourism to third world countries, where the cost of care is much lower -- and where some of the physicians, unlike most modern American doctors, are still willing to accept payment in chickens.

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