In his address to Congress last week, President Obama decried the failures of the American health care system, and pointed out how poorly it fares in comparison to other wealthy countries. Millions of people in this country do not have health insurance and can’t afford necessary medical care. Tens of thousands die each year from lack of such access. We are “the only wealthy nation that allows such hardship for millions of its people,” observed the President.
The sorry and disgraceful state of the American system of health care is documented in The End of the American Century (pp. 48-53), and was also the subject of a post I made on this blog a year ago (US Ranks Low on Health Care). Since then, there is a mounting pile of evidence documenting how badly America fares in health care, on multiple dimensions. This is true both in terms of general overall statistics, like infant mortality, maternal mortality, and average lifespan (reported by organizations like the World Health Organization and the United Nations), but also in more specialized areas, like survival rates for disease, patient access to physicians, and public satisfaction with health care in different countries.
The highly regarded Commonwealth Fund, for example, conducts periodic studies of such issues, comparing the United States to other wealthy countries. One such study on patient access to primary-care physicians found that Americans wait longer to see their doctors than patients in Britain, Germany, Australia, or New Zealand, Holland or France—all countries with strong public-health systems. Almost a quarter of Americans reported waiting six days or more for an appointment, compared to just 14% in the UK and 18% in France, for example.
Another study on “preventable deaths” found the U.S. ranking dead last of the 19 countries in the study. These are deaths that could have been prevented with timely and effective health care--which of course is often unavailable to millions of American citizens. The U.S. ranking on this scale actually declined from 1997 to 2003, from 15th place to 19th place. Number one in the ranking? France.
Yet another study compared five-year survival rates for various diseases in the U.S. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and England—all of whom spend far less on health care than the U.S. Of the five diseases, on only one of them (breast cancer) did the U.S. have the best five-year survival rates.
The veteran journalist T.R. Reid has just published a new book, The Healing of America, in which he compares health care systems around the world. In a summary of the book in Newsweek ("No Country for Sick Men"), Reid observes that in health care:
“The United States is the odd man out among the world’s advanced, free-market democracies. All the other industrialized democracies guarantee health care for everybody—young or old, sick or well, rich or poor, native or immigrant. The U.S.A., the world’s richest and most powerful nation, is the only advanced country that has never made a commitment to provide medical care to everyone who needs it.”Consequently, according to Reid,
“about 22,000 of our fellow Americans die each year of treatable diseases because they lack insurance and can’t afford a doctor.”
Many Americans express concern about the “rationing” of health care in a government-supported system. But has Reid observes, the U.S. already rations health care. It is “rationing care by wealth.” While this may seem natural to Americans, he says, “to the rest of the developed world, it looks immoral.”
The immorality of this is particularly callous in its effects on children. A study from the National Center for Health Statistics reports that poor children are 3.6 times more likely to have poor health than children from affluent families. As I point out in my book, “The United States is the only developed country in the world where children suffer poor health and die simply because their parents are poor or unemployed.” (p. 52).
One also hears concern in the current debates about the potential costs of a system of universal health care—legitimate concerns in the face of unprecedented government deficits and debt. But the U.S. already has the most expensive health care system in the world, no matter how you measure it. As a share of GDP (2006), health care constituted over 15% in the U.S., compared to 11% in France, 10% in Canada and 8% in England—all of them with universal coverage for their citizens (OECD). On a per-capita basis, the U.S. also outspends every other country in the world, by a long shot.
Many Americans assume that the largely private medical care in the U.S. is more efficient, less bureaucratic and less costly than the government-run programs in other countries. In fact, administrative costs in the U.S. are higher in for-profit hospitals than in public ones, and overall administrative costs are higher in the U.S. than in countries with government-run programs. Compared to other countries, the U.S. also comes up high on administrative costs in health care. A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that administrative costs absorbed 31 cents of every health care dollar in the U.S. compared to only 17 cents in Canada, which has a universal health insurance plan paid for by the government.
By all of these statistical measures, the U.S. health care system looks bad. But what it really comes down to is not statistical comparisons but fairness, compassion and justice. And the outcome of health care reform will depend as much on these American values more than anything else. President Obama himself recognized this in his address to Congress, where he appealed to the “large-heartedness” in the American character—“that concern and regard for the plight of others.”
“It, too, is part of the American character -- our ability to stand in other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.”
Much of the opposition to health care reform has come from people who are worried about how the changes will affect themselves and their families. Perhaps this self-interest is normal, and part of human nature. But our fate and health as a country is as much dependent on the health and safety of others as it is on our own. Re-establishing a sense of community and common purpose—and of the American tradition of large-heartedness—is an essential ingredient in the prescription for the ailing American health care system--and in restoring the United States as a great power.