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Eric Boehlert Headshot

Sorry Rush, Gun Violence Is a Health Care Issue

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How illogical has the right-wing media 'debate' about gun control become this week in the wake of President Obama moving forward on a host of violence prevention measures?

So illogical that conservative media voices expressed outrage, while spreading constant misinformation, about the role doctors might play in addressing gun violence in America. The right-wing Noise Machine cranked up the indignation because the Obama administration wants to make sure health care professional are allowed to communicate with their patients about guns and gun safety.

In other words, the right-wing Noise Machine is furious that the White House is treating gun violence, in part, as a health care issue when it so transparently is one.

Fact: The United States' life expectancy rate is far lower than most other affluent countries, in part because of our rate of gun violence far outpaces those other countries.

Meanwhile, taxpayers here spend billions each year paying health care costs to treat gunshot victims, the strong majority of whom, research indicates, are uninsured. Taxpayers spend even more money covering societal costs, such as long-term psychological problems, disability, and the loss of productivity suffered by approximately 70,000 Americans who suffer non-fatal gun shot wounds annually.

Following the school gun massacre in Newtown, Conn. last month, Bloomberg News reported:

The cost of U.S. gun violence in work lost, medical care, insurance, criminal-justice expenses and pain and suffering amounted to as much as $174 billion in 2010, according to data compiled by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton, Maryland.

That averages out to more than $644 in costs for every gun owned in America. As economist Ted Miller, the Institute's principal research scientist, told Bloomberg, "Gun ownership is like smoking, an expensive and dangerous habit."

So yes, gun violence is America represents an epic and costly health care problem, which is why it makes sense to include health care providers in any comprehensive attempt to combat the crisis. (On Wednesday, the White House announced the administration would "issue guidance clarifying that the Affordable Care Act does not ban doctors from asking patients "about firearms in their patients' homes and safe storage of those firearms.")

As the Firearm & Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania has concluded, "Healthcare providers have a vital role in preventing intentional and unintentional firearm injuries and their impact on patients, families and communities." And that's why the group Doctors for America applauded Obama's gun violence imitative this week.

Meanwhile, the far-right allegation that Obama now requires physicians to press patients about gun use represents a complete fabrication. So was Rush Limbaugh's claim that Obama's trying to turn doctors into "snitches," and Lou Dobbs' fearmongering about the president turning doctors into "an agent of the federal government."

The right-wing freak-out is built around the fake premise of, how dare Obama recruit doctors to fight his war on gun violence. (Drudge Report headline: "War on Crazy: Obama Deputizes Doctors") That may be a conservative attempt to keep the gun debate focused on the issue of gun rights and the Second Amendment and away from the catastrophic, real-life costs that gun violence registers each year.

However, the right-wing media's baseless assertion ignores the obvious fact that the health care industry in this country -- doctors, hospitals, emergency rooms, mental health centers -remains inundated with gunshot wounds daily and deals with the life-changing crisis all the time. (Nearly 300 people are shot everyday in America.) Doctors don't have to go snooping around acting as "snitches" in order to find the problem.

And the financial costs of those gunshots wounds is rising; improved trauma care means hospitals now save more gunshot victims, which in turn adds to larger, long-term health care and rehabilitation costs.

A 2005 study of hospital charges for firearm injuries in Pennsylvania found that the average charge for inpatient hospitalization due to firearm injuries was $30,814. That figure was more than double what gunshot injuries cost hospitals between 1996-1998.

An in-depth investigation on gunshot violence by the Milwaukee Journal in 2006 reported that the average bill for a shooting patient treated at the city's Froedtert Hospital was $38,000. For gunshot victims who suffered spinal damage, the bill regularly reached six figures.

Truth is, any attempt to reduce gun violence in America must include a health care strategy, no matter how much whining Fox News and Rush Limbaugh do about it.

Crossposted at County Fair, a Media Matters for America blog.