He won a Nobel Prize, but couldn't afford health care


Raised in the Bronx and a graduate of James Monroe High School,  Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman died peacefully at 96 in an Idaho care home earlier this month of complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

With two other American physicists, Lederman received the prize for uncovering new particles that enhanced our understanding of the fundamental universe.

All the obituaries worldwide heralded Lederman as breaking ground for further discoveries, but also as a scientist who made the often obscure world of physics clear to the general public. But every newspaper — in the United States and abroad — noted that his family sold his prize medal (auctioned it on the internet for $765,000) to pay for his mounting medical bills, and for the cost of a nursing home in Idaho near the town where he and his wife were living when he retired.

So there are two stories here. The extraordinary one of a man with a remarkable mind — an inventive and generous one. That’s what made him unique. And the story of a man whose brain deteriorated so much that he needed care 24/7.

The second story is what made him like the more than 5 million other Americans who suffer as he did.

The first story included the saga of his uncovering two tiny particles of matter beyond the atom which opened new pathways to our understanding of the world, and which became the subject of the book, “The God Particle” — as a way of explaining what physics still can’t quite fathom. In a lengthy New York Times article, George Johnson quotes Lederman’s passion to share the joys of physics.

“How can we have our colleagues … share with us, not the cleverness of our research, but the beauty of the intellectual edifice, of which our experiment is but one brick? Atoms formed molecules, and the molecules formed things that crawled out of the ocean.

“And here we are, worrying about the whole thing!”

But in the second story — told only briefly, but omitted from none of the columns heralding his life — the worries come even closer to home. Not cosmic, but personal.

Lederman’s life ended peacefully because he could afford the care he needed. Valuing his calm ad quiet over the medal, his family made the sale which allowed him the best of care.

Alzheimer’s doesn’t choose victims with cash reserves, and few of us have very marketable assets. One in every 10 Americans will suffer from the disease.

The number is expected to skyrocket as baby boomers age.

Long-term care in a New York nursing facility costs $100,000 per year. So we’re afraid, all of us, that we may need such care at some point in our lives, and that — in addition to health insurance for which we’ve paid all our lives — we either must purchase expensive long-term policies, or spend down our assets until the government will help us out.

And that help will be challenged if Mitch McConnell gets his wish to pay for the tax cuts to the rich with cuts in “entitlements” — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Forget about a bucket list of dream vacations and a golden old age.

The only single-payer plan nationwide that has all the econometrics worked out, the New York Health Act, will — for the first time — include long-term care in its 2019 budget for those with lifelong disabilities as well.

In a report issued Aug. 1, the conservative Rand Corp., certified that we can afford it together with comprehensive, universal cost-effective coverage for all New Yorkers, and save money over what we are currently paying into a system that is less and less affordable, and the chief cause of bankruptcy even for people with insurance.

To ease our worries and to fight the more than $1.6 million a day that the health care industry spends on lobbying — and which it will increase as the New York Health Act becomes more and more popular with voters — it is vital that we have a Democratic majority in the state senate and Assembly.

To that end, Alessandra Biaggi is working tirelessly to support Democrats in other districts — particularly those in nearby Rockland and Orange counties.

Help Biaggi help you by volunteering to get out the vote, and be sure to vote on Nov. 6 for her and for Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz.

David Knapp,