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The Independent Investor: The Culling of America

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
As the death toll attributed to the coronavirus breached 100,000 in the Unites States this week, among the hardest hit Americans are those in the elderly population. The numbers simply illustrate what we all know. Eighty percent of the known fatalities were at least 65 years old. As such, the virus appears to be very good at selective slaughter.
 
As one of those who are most susceptible to dying from this virus, I have done a lot of soul searching over our future.  Today, I will begin to share some of these thoughts. Aside from the human loss, for example, what potential impact will this pandemic have on health care costs in the future?
 
Today, according to the most recent statistics, firms and individuals spend between 10-15 percent of Gross Domestic Product on health care. While the elderly account for about 16 percent of the population, they represent over 35 percent of total health-care costs. Most of these people are oldsters like me. Statistically, they tend to be older and white, with 40 percent of those expenses accounted for by inpatient stays.
 
Part of the reason for this trend happens to be the large segment of the population that is now represented by Baby Boomers. One can assume that, as they age, their medical costs are going to escalate and grow to an increasing portion of the country's health care costs. That seems to be a no brainer.
 
However, one wonders how the ongoing pandemic will alter that equation. For example, if COVID-19 is here to stay (in one form or another), and continue to prey on the elderly, will the nation's health care costs go up or down? One's first thought would be up, but that may not be true. The coronavirus is an efficient killer. Victims either recover, or die fairly soon. There does not seem to be many cases where the victims linger on.
 
Why is this important?  Because medical spending in the last year of life accounts for 16.8 percent of total costs for those over 65 years old. Just think of it — machines, specialists, MRIs, chemo, radiation, surgeries — the list goes on and on. It is even worse for those that make it over age 70. They can expect to see health care costs double from the ages of 70 to 90. Will death by virus alter that spending outcome? I think so.
 
I realize that's a pretty gruesome argument but one that is nonetheless realistic. I wonder if nature, in the form of this pandemic, is taking a hand in culling our human herd, and, if so, how does one avoid the slaughterhouse?
 
We know that those suffering from low immune systems, diabetes, cancer, and other ailments are highly susceptible to dying from this virus. In fact, the sicker you already are, the higher your risk. The silver lining in this crisis is obvious.
 
If we Baby Boomers ever needed a motivation to change our unhealthy ways, we have it now. How many of us fail even to do the most rudimentary exercises? We eat all the wrong things, and as a result, we number among the highest of all nations in obesity.  In this country, fully 85 percent of us will die from chronic diseases, which could easily be avoided through exercise and diet. We know all of this and yet choose to ignore it.
 
Could this virus trigger a change in our collective psyche in regard to our health? Will exercising at home, wearing masks, eating healthier, and shunning fast food by necessity catch on? If elderly Americans start to perceive a life style change as a result of COVID-19, then just maybe there will be some good outcomes to this pandemic. What do you think?
 

Bill Schmick is now the 'Retired Investor.' After working in the financial services business for more than 40 years, Bill is paring back and focusing exclusively on writing about the financial markets, the needs of retired investors like himself, and how to make your last 30 years of your life your absolute best. You can reach him at billiams1948@gmail.com or leave a message at 413-347-2401.

 

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