Jesy Scherer-Radcliff probably didn’t think a Friday in June would be his last day on earth.
Scherer-Radcliff passed away on June 28, 2019 at 21-years old from “complications of his diabetes,” according to his obituary, but the true story remains buried in interviews with family members: Scherer-Radcliff, a diabetic diagnosed 11 years ago, was unable to afford the insulin required to keep him alive. His tragic death reminds poor diabetics of the threat they face every day.
According to his mother, Scherer-Radcliff was a hard worker who wanted to prove to his family that he could be responsible for himself. He “wanted to be a positive influence for his younger brothers and sisters,” she wrote in a blog post reflecting on her son’s death. She also disclosed that Scherer-Radcliff had just been promoted and, for some time, took on a second job to help cover his cost of living.
“Insulin deaths,” as they’ve been branded, don’t happen in other wealthy countries. This phenomenon represents the kind of American exceptionalism we often try to tune out. America is exceptionally indifferent to the adverse effects of its unwavering commitment to a commodified, for-profit healthcare system.
It would be easy to write a column explaining the various advantages of Medicare for All, including lower costs, better health outcomes, more effective research, less administration, more competition, and higher productivity. Instead, I’ll offer a simple moral premise that you can contemplate on your own: No American should die of an easily preventable health condition.
But Scherer-Radcliff is far from the only victim of marketized healthcare. Estimates vary, but we know tens of thousands of Americans die every year because they are uninsured. Cases range from those like Scherer-Radcliff to patients who avoid early cancer screenings because they can’t afford them.
One can imagine Scherer-Radcliff walking into a pharmacy, staring at hundreds of bottles of insulin waiting behind the glass just a few feet away. The pharmacist probably smiled at him, too. Unfortunately, Scherer-Radcliff didn’t have the required amount of dead presidents in his pocket. That is why he died on that fateful June day.
In a different society, this story is a horror novel. The terrifying government death panel from your nightmares is here in the form of unseen market forces. In that society, an event like this might be called something like “dystopian,” “totalitarian,” or “murderous.”
In the United States, we call it the invisible hand of the market.
How could this have happened? Fundamental market economics can help us understand what happened to Scherer-Radcliff and why his death was both necessary and profitable for insurance companies and insulin manufacturers.
Insulin, along with most healthcare, is an example of what market economists label an extremely inelastic good. As the price of insulin changes, demand for it remains virtually the same. In the context of insulin, this is easy to understand. It’s a unique hormone that users can’t substitute with anything else. For a diabetic, the choice is insulin or death, which explains why demand is so unresponsive to price changes.
Those who control insulin prices — there are three total manufacturers in the U.S. who appear to fix prices together — are left with an interesting choice: They can provide insulin at a low cost and forgo a certain amount of profit, or they can maximize profit. Companies choose the latter because its owners want to make as much money as possible.
But what are the consequences? If a few dozen of the 7 million Americans who use insulin die every year, but the firm is able to charge 100 times the cost of production (as of writing, this is the ratio of cost-to-market value), why wouldn’t it do so if its only responsibility is to profit? This is not a thought experiment, but a sober analysis of the current insulin market conditions. The market has no capacity to account for these deaths. The invisible hand closed Scherer-Radcliff’s coffin.
There’s another side to the story. Scherer-Radcliff actually did have health insurance when he died. He just couldn’t afford the copays on the insulin he needed to survive. A health insurance company, similar to an insulin manufacturer, finds itself in an interesting situation: the more coverage it can deny, the larger its profit margin at the end of the quarter. Thus, a profitable health insurance company’s incentives are directly at odds with its express mission, which is to provide healthcare coverage to its customers.
Taken further, it would be disingenuous to continue calling our healthcare system “good.” A good healthcare system would exist for the purpose of providing healthcare. Instead, it serves the interests of those who own the company. Those interests are almost always directed toward profit. Thus, we don’t have a good healthcare system, but a good profit system.
Behind the facade of “insulin manufacturer” and “health insurance provider” lies the true nature of our economy: it’s composed of profit-seekers. Health insurance and insulin are simply the mechanisms through which companies facilitate this profit. If you need a reminder of the consequences of this, talk to Scherer-Radcliff’s mother.
We created the system of capitalism and profit-seeking that dominates our access to healthcare. Our passivity, nonchalance, and refusal to critically analyze its effects allows a system like this to perpetuate even in the face of clear, lifesaving alternatives like Medicare for All. “Who killed Scherer-Radcliff?” is a tough question for even the best philosophers.
Nicole Smith-Holt attended Scherer-Radcliff’s funeral. Her son, Alec Smith, passed away in 2017. He was another so-called “insulin death.” Since then, Smith-Holt has advocated for Medicare for All and other solutions like emergency insulin programs.
Who killed Scherer-Radcliff? Smith-Holt has an answer.
“My son and Jesy, they were murdered,” she said. “They were killed by Big Pharma. The cause of death should actually be on their death certificates: corporate greed.”
Cal Abbo is a columnist on Democratic politics and is The Collegian’s assistant features editor.