How to Get Sicker, Die Sooner and Pay More For It

By Jill Lawrence

September 24, 2015 5 min read

It is painful that five years after passage of the Affordable Care Act, 19 states still have not taken advantage of its option to expand Medicaid. It becomes more so with each new report on the deeply flawed U.S. health system.

The latest, from the National Academy of Sciences, finds that rich people live about 13 years longer than poor people. The researchers note that consequently, rich people end up getting the lion's share of Social Security benefits. Such inequity should be attacked at its root. At the very least, we could use available tools to help low-income people get health insurance.

The NAS report is far from the first to highlight problems in our approach and results. The Commonwealth Fund last year examined health systems in 11 western industrialized nations. For the fourth time in a decade, the United States system placed first in cost and last in what it delivers. Our system is less fair, less efficient, makes us less healthy and gives us shorter lives. All that for an average of $8,508 per person, way more than second-place Norway at $5,669. In case you were wondering, Britain's socialized National Health Service was No. 1 at less than half the U.S. cost.

That information landed just as Allan Detsky published a New Yorker analysis of two 2013 reports on global health systems by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the National Institutes of Health. The study of the 34 OECD countries found an alarming trend: The United States ranked 20th for life expectancy at birth in 1990 and fell to 27th in 2010. On a measure combining level of health and length of life, we plunged from 14th to 26th.

The NIH report by the federal Institute of Medicine found that Americans fared worse than people in 16 "peer" countries in nine areas: infant mortality, injuries and homicides, teen pregnancy, HIV and AIDS, drug-related deaths, obesity and diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, and disability. Why? The authors cite a larger uninsured population than peer countries, worse health habits, more poverty, and more neighborhoods designed to require automobiles.

We have gained a few new tools since some of those studies were done. Some, such as Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative and money for electronic medical records in the stimulus law, are nudging us slowly in a better direction. Among the most significant advances are the ACA's new marketplaces (where individuals can buy insurance regardless of their health status) and the law's expansion of Medicaid (even though the Supreme Court transformed it into an option that states could take or leave).

The Medicaid expansion is designed for people who make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but too little to afford even subsidized private insurance plans. In states that have rejected the expansion, nearly 4 million people are stuck in an absurd coverage gap. That's even though the federal government is footing the entire bill for the additional enrollees until 2016 and will pay at least 90 percent for them after that.

If we're already spending a huge amount on health care, why should we sink more into it? It's a good question — yet we might not have to spend more if we were spending more wisely. We could start by slashing our astonishing medical pricing. It costs more than eight times as much for an MRI here as in Switzerland, a typical example from a study of nine countries released last year by the International Federation of Health Plans. Just this month, The New York Times reported on a 62-year-old drug that went from $13.50 to $750 per tablet overnight.

How can we get a grip on costs? In part by getting a grip on politics. Medicare, overcoming "death panels" alarmism, recently announced it will reimburse doctors for discussing end-of-life choices with patients. That may lead to a decline in expensive, painful and futile treatments. Next, we should lift bans on research into gun violence, the better to reduce shootings and their public health costs.

Ideology is standing in the way on guns, as it is in the 19 states refusing so far to expand Medicaid. The struggles of purple-state Virginia have been among the most epic. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been repeatedly thwarted by Republican lawmakers in his push to expand Medicaid. Last year, a disloyal Democratic lawmaker resigned and threw the state Senate into GOP hands. This year Democrats are trying to win back the chamber and, along with it, the slim chance of a Medicaid deal. In the meantime, some 350,000 Virginians are stranded in the coverage gap.

And this, dear readers, is how you get to be last place in the developed world.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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