Pain and suffering on the march, fair wages for weak hitters, why Zoe got off easy, and other matters. SICK STATISTICS

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Will Bill and Hillary get control of health care costs? As we punch away at the keyboard, that is the question pulsating in the Beltway beau monde. Back here in the real world -- the everyday world of ordinary folks who write neoconservative columns -- a far different question is No. 1. The question: How do you get control of all the phony statistics about health care costs? Who makes up those crazy figures about the annual cost to society of this or that disease? And why do the media continually fall for these stats? Can the scribes really be so innumerate as to swallow uncritically such pronouncements as the American Heart Association's declaration the other day that heart disease and strokes will (to quote the AP lead) ''cost the United States $117.4 billion this year,'' this wonderfully precise number allegedly being the sum of bills for hospitalization, drugs, doctors' care, and ''the value of worker productivity lost because of heart disease''? The AHA pronouncement set us to searching for costs attributable to other dire diseases, and soon enough we had a treasure-trove of phony statistics. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says that schizophrenia costs the U.S. $50 billion a year. The National Cancer Institute claims more than $100 billion for neoplasms. Teddy Kennedy a few years ago estimated the cost to the U.S. of AIDS at $63 billion. The Lyme Disease Foundation, still a minor-league player, claims only $1.2 billion. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has laid on the table a figure of $15 billion. Some officials at the federal Center for Disease Control have spoken bravely of $7.7 billion to $8.4 billion for ''food-borne illnesses,'' with about half of that total assigned to salmonella. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases puts hip fractures at $7.3 billion. The National Diabetes Data Group said a few years ago that its disease cost $13.8 billion. The American Pain Society has claimed $80 billion for chronic pain. In 1990 the National Committee for Injury Prevention and Control put forward the largest figure of all: $133.2 billion for ''accidents.'' We could keep this up for quite awhile. What's wrong with these figures? For one thing, the data are wobbly, as Keeping Up rapidly discovered in conversations with some of the foundations. It tends to be most unclear what is being added up to arrive at the total. Exactly what is the NIMH counting when it attributes the $50 billion for schizophrenia not only to medical treatment but to ''police problems'' and ''family crises''? It is true that in some cases the methodology is clear and somebody has obviously made a real effort to count the medical costs and lost earnings of the sick or deceased. But even where these estimates look reasonable, it makes no sense to think of them as a ''cost to the U.S.'' The medical costs, after all, are in large measure the incomes of doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators, and the premature deaths, however regrettable, represent diminished pressure on the strained American pension system. In a national perspective, the $17.6 billion of earnings lost by heart-disease victims (according to the AHA) can just as plausibly be viewed as earnings found by their replacements. Obviously, there are lots of folks out there with a stake in inflating the cost to society of their favorite form of unhealthiness. When you escalate the cost of the medical menace, you arguably strengthen the case for government spending to fight it. Also, you give the reporter a better lead.