In 1994, after the Republicans paralyzed the Clinton health reform proposal, I published an article in the Florida Journal of Public Health titled “Reforming health care in the US and Europe: Why we fail and they succeed.” It explained why health reforms succeed in other Western countries with policies of universal access and user-friendly systems. In our case, the Republicans sacrificed health security of all citizens to play the political game of “Repeal the Obama Affordable Health Care Act,” responding to lobbyists and funding from interest groups. Members of Congress who voted to repeal the law come from the same category of irresponsible politicians who represent special interests that opposed Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for short political gains.
To review where we are, the American health care non-system:
- is the only system that does not provide health security to its citizens. The uninsured population reached 46.3 million in 2008 (compared to 36 million in 1993) and is steadily increasing. If the status quo continues by repealing Obamacare, it is expected to reach 75 million in 2019.
- is the most expensive system in the world. American healthcare expenditures made up 16.2% of our gross national income in 2008, compared to an average of 9% in Europe. Without the recently passed reforms, it will soon reach 25%, which is almost double the cost in any country of comparable national income. The cost per individual reached $7,681 in 2008.
- has one of the lowest provider-to-population ratios and the highest administrator-to-provider ratios (8 administrators per 10 health providers) among Western nations. The administrative portion of private health insurance agency expenditures is 30%, compared to 2-4% in Medicare and governmental agencies.
- has one of the lowest proportions of hospital beds for the population, the lowest hospital admission rate and the shortest length of hospital stay among Western nations. While European citizens use an average of 7-8 outpatient doctor visits per year, Americans use 3.8 visits per year.
These are just few features of our system that some falsely call “the best system in the world.” By technical and scientific standards, this system is ranked 37th among the 190 countries in the world. Life expectancy at birth, 78 years in the US, is among the lowest of industrial countries. Seven out of 1,000 American children die before their first birthday, a figure similar to that of Thailand and Lithuania. While many are proud of our rate of high-tech surgical procedures, research has demonstrated that about 20% of these procedures are unnecessary and are financially driven or performed to avoid litigation. The scientific measures of quality of care indicate that the American system is, at best, comparable to most Western countries.
Many opponents of the reforms cite concerns such as mandating insurance coverage or government involvement. However, health insurance is compulsory in most developed nations to avoid the costs incurred by individuals who do not pay for coverage and go to emergency rooms for care, shifting the cost to the insured. Also, the notion that the public option will increase government’s involvement in health care is false: about 45% of Americans’ health care costs are covered by governmental programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans health services, and state and local government services. Another allegation is the cost and the deficit, but this does not take into account the savings for individuals and families from reducing out-of pocket costs, as well as the cost to employers, who will either pay more or will lower health benefits or shift the cost to the employees. Others intentionally confuse the debate by bringing in political ideology or simply targeting the President and the Democratic party. This irresponsible act will hurt all Americans in the future.
It is essential at this time to focus the debate on the health system. To those fighting for repeal, please come with the alternatives first. What will happen to the escalating number of citizens who are uninsured, and those who have preexisting conditions, and the skyrocketing health care cost?
Let us play politics away from the nation’s health security.
Samir Banoob, M.D., D.M., D.P.H., Ph.D., is the president of International Health Management, consulting firm in Florida that leads international health projects and trains scholars from more than 70 countries. He has taught as a professor of international health policy and management and has worked as a consultant to WHO, World Bank, and other international agencies on projects in 76 countries. He served as the Chair of the International Health Section from 1992 to 1994, and again from 2006 to 2008.