Lessons the Iditarod can teach Washington

There’s delivering healthcare and then there’s delivering healthcare. In 1925, the village of Nome, Alaska was threatened by a terrible diphtheria outbreak. To get desperately needed serum to Nome and save the village, Alaska’s top dog sledders volunteered to make the 674-mile run despite terrible odds and even worse weather. One hundred and fifty sled dogs led the miraculous “Great Race of Mercy,” but only one got the headlines plus a famous statue in Central Park and his own Spielberg animated movie – Balto.

The real hero, however, was an undersized, 12-year-old Siberian Husky named Togo who led his team with gritty determination across jagged ice floes in -85°F weather, racing more than five times the distance of the other teams to get the serum to Balto for the final, short leg. The Great Race of Mercy is one of the inspirations behind Alaska’s famed Iditarod®, which is underway this week, and it reminds us of what can be accomplished when people are brave, resourceful, and willing to take risks for the greater good. This relay run wasn’t a race for glory; it was a race to bring lifesaving medicine to the people of Nome.

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When it comes to the challenge of delivering affordable, accessible patient-centered healthcare in 2014, Togo and the intrepid sledders of the Great Race of Mercy and their dogs could teach Washington a thing or two about embracing a cause greater than self, putting the welfare of others ahead of personal or political gain and not worrying about who gets the credit. Washington has been consumed with the Affordable Care Act, unfortunately with an emphasis on process rather than substance. It’s all about poll numbers and the blame game, not about the fact that we still have an unsustainable healthcare cost curve and no systemic plan to fix it.

The answers to meeting great challenges are seldom found in one idea, one person, one party or ideology. Teamwork, cooperation and compromise usually produce more solutions than raw competition for competition’s sake. The Great Race shows us what real heart with everyone pulling together in one direction can achieve in times of crisis. 

While the destination for each dog sled, Nome, is the same, their strategies for getting there can be very different. Likewise, political leaders of every stripe share a similar goal when it comes to healthcare – making it more patient- centric, accessible and sustainable. But people are tired of the constant bickering, one side leveling charges against the other, one step above name-calling, while the system flounders. What they want is more concern about healthcare outcomes rather than who won the cable battle of the day. They’d like a little more “Togo” – a pure obsession with getting the job done, teamwork and noble leadership.

Ronald Reagan said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit” while another president, John F. Kennedy, urged, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer.” Good advice from two partisans who put country first.

As we cheer on the Iditarod’s great dogsled teams and reflect on Togo’s indomitable spirit of teamwork surrounding a mission of health, we can’t help but hope that Washington decides to blaze a new trail forward that benefits the health of all of us, and in turn, saves the country from financial ruin. 

Janata is an advisory council member of the Children’s Health Fund and president and senior partner at TogoRun. Woodbury is the author of  “Saving Lives and Saving Money” and a managing director and partner at TogoRun.

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