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April 17, 2005 - Healthcare in America is the Best?

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The specter of "socialized medicine" is the greatest con ever perpetrated on the American public?

Over the years we've jury rigged a bizarre system that Rube Goldberg would be ashamed of, but somehow we're convinced that America has the best healthcare in the world?

But the plain fact is that we don't?

Monday last I sent my conservative friend an item by Kevin Drum on his site “Political Animal” over at the Washington Monthly because he and had this exact conversation, almost word for word, more a year ago.  Here we have Matt Welch and Emmanuelle Richard – mentioned here before as she’s the French stringer out here for the French daily Libération and we chatted now once (and she invites me to those press parties and our site crosslink) – and of interest to me as I used to work in healthcare, first for a chain of hospitals and then for an HMO.  Any conversation about healthcare costs and quality catches my attention.

Drum found, via Ted Barlow, a post from Matt Welch from the previous on Friday – a bunch of libertarians chatting about healthcare about healthcare -

... we had some small discussion group about De Tocqueville, and someone (naturally) brought up France's high taxes and thick welfare state. "Well, the thing is," Emmanuelle said (quotes are inexact), "some of the things the French state provides are pretty good. For instance health care."

"Wait a minute wait a minute," one guy said. "If you were sick — I mean, really sick — where would you rather be? France or the U.S.?"

"Um, France," we both said.

Various sputtering ensued. What about the terrible waiting lists? (There really aren't any.) The shoddy quality? (It's actually quite good.) Finally, to deflect the conversation away, I said "Look, if we made twice as much money, we'd probably prefer American health care for a severe crisis. But we don't, so we don't."


Drum’s comment?


Hell, I make more money than Matt and if I were really sick I'd rather be in France too. I've read quite a bit about France's healthcare system and it's effin great. To put it in a nutshell, you can pick any doctor you want, the quality of care is high, the doctors themselves seem pretty happy with the way it works, and the overall cost per person is half what the American system costs. Plus it covers everyone in the country, not just 70% of them.
But all you hear about in America is that you might have to wait six months for hip replacement surgery. And indeed you might. But that's because hip replacement surgery is usually pretty low priority stuff. On the other hand, if what you need is either routine medical care or else urgent treatment for something like a heart attack — that is, the stuff that makes up 99% of actual real life medical care — France is great.

I've long thought that the specter of "socialized medicine" is the greatest con ever perpetrated on the American public. Think about it. Suppose you were constructing a healthcare system from scratch. Choice #1 is national healthcare along the lines of France or Sweden. (Not Britain. Their system kind of sucks.)

Choice #2 is this: if you're employed, your employer might provide you with healthcare coverage of some kind. Anytime you change employers or your employer changes plans, your coverage and your doctor will change too. If you're unemployed, or you work for Wal-Mart, you get nothing — though in a pinch you can always show up at an emergency room, which is perhaps the most expensive way of delivering healthcare known to man. If you're poor, there's a shabby government program that will sort of cover your kids, but probably not you. If you're over 65, another government program will cover some but not all of your medical expenses. And all of this will cost us about 14% of GDP, far more than any other industrialized country on the planet.

That's insane. No one would design a healthcare system like that. But that's what we have, thanks mostly to a weird set of coincidences and political compromises made around the time of World War II.

And who benefits from it? Citizens? Probably 95% of us would be better off with France's system than with ours. Businesses? Why should they be saddled with the cost and hassle of providing healthcare? Doctors? Maybe a bit, but an awful lot of them would probably be better off in France too. Insurance carriers and pharmaceutical companies? Bingo.

The whole thing is crazy. Over the years we've jury rigged a bizarre system that Rube Goldberg would be ashamed of, but somehow we're convinced that America has the best healthcare in the world. But the plain fact is that we don't. For a tiny percentage of us, medical care here is better than in France. For the vast, vast majority, France's system is superior to ours in practically every respect.

But — quelle horror! — that would be socialized medicine. And you might have to wait six months for hip replacement surgery. Probably best just to stick with what we have. After all, the insurance industry wouldn't lie to us, would they?


And my conservative friend replies -


Interesting. We did have this exact conversation. It's hard to know what is real and what is not.

For example, not long ago in preparing for our upcoming trip to Provence I read Peter Mayle's "Toujours Provence" which, as you probably know and have read, is his wonderfully entertaining slice of life accounts of his experience there. One of the chapters talked about healthcare in Provence and pointed out that it was indeed very bureaucratic and perhaps hit and miss for what you may really have (in terms of diagnosis). Follow up and follow through seemed atrocious and direction from the doctor was fuzzy at best. He didn't directly slam it but his story didn't put it in a glowing light. Ah but that was Mayle's experience.

Mais peut-etre plus de la difference a Paris, n'est-ce pas? Dans la grande ville du pays? C'est meilleur, sans doute.


Well, there is counter eveidence that things are always better in big cities, that Paris is a better play to be sick than, say, Lourmarin.

Here’s one Peter Owen, an expatriate living in France, and his experience -


I live in a rural area around 8km from the nearest village, 12km from a big village and over 20km from the nearest town.

I was cycling home when a dog collided with my bike. The animal was unhurt but I fell off, but only seemed to be in some discomfort at that point. During the night, however, the pain became excruciating so in the morning I phoned my généraliste (GP) in the big village and fixed an appointment for that afternoon when my neighbour could drive me in.

I arrived 15 minutes early and was seen almost immediately. The GP telephoned the X-ray unit 3km away and explained the condition. I was told to come straightaway. I waited about 10 minutes to be x-rayed, then a further 15 minutes while the X-rays were being studied. The radiologist then explained that I had a fracture and a cracked rib. I was told to take the X-rays back to my GP immediately.

The GP studied the X-rays and decided that I should see an orthopaedic specialist. He telephoned the specialist (in the nearest big town) and I was given an appointment for the following morning. In the meantime I was prescribed painkillers, which came from the next-door pharmacy. I would at least sleep that night.

The following day I waited only a few minutes before being seen by the orthopaedic specialist, who decided that my current strapping was insufficient and my wrist and lower arm needed to be put in plaster, which he did. I should return in four weeks' time.


There’s much more detail at the link.

Kevin Drum’s comment?


Total out of pocket cost in this case, which was higher than normal because this guy has an expensive GP, was about a hundred bucks.

That socialized medicine stuff is hell, isn't it?


Well, it IS socialized.

Well, forget France.  What about the UK?  Everyone knows their National Health System (NHS) is crappy.  Right?

Well, Drum points to this from one Avedon Carol, an American who's been in the UK for some years now –


To me, though, the priceless fact of UK healthcare is this: I pay for it when I can pay, and I get it when I need it. What that means is that, yes, when I'm getting a paycheck, money comes out whether I'm sick or not, but when I'm ill, I get healthcare whether I have money to fork-over or not. I don't feel that money coming out of my paycheck, but believe me, as someone who grew up in the US, I am acutely aware of the fact that when I'm thinking about seeking medical care or advice, I know with a certainty that the price is not an issue.

When I was getting ready for my eye surgery, I didn't forget that even some people I know who have health insurance in the US would have had to write-off their eye if they'd been in my situation because the cost of surgery, two nights in the hospital, and after-care might not all be covered and what they still would have had to produce out-of-pocket would have broken them. Someone with no insurance wouldn't even have been able to consider it. (And that's leaving aside the four weeks I spent house-bound while I kept my head in the necessary position to make sure the procedure works. Would your employer give that to you?)

I get the care I need when I need it, and so far it's been good care. I never have to think about whether I can afford it. Like I say, priceless.


As Drum adds -


And keep in mind that this is Britain, which is generally thought to have one of the worst national healthcare systems in Europe.

It's funny, isn't it? Conservatives keep telling us how bad healthcare is in the socialist hells of Europe and Canada, and yet the people who actually live in Europe and Canada mostly like their healthcare just fine. In fact, they like it better than most Americans like American healthcare (see Exhibit 1 in this report). They pay less for it than we do, too (see Figure 1 in this report).

Marc Danziger may think that "If I had a chronic or serious disease, and insurance, I'd rather be here," but I can't figure out why. After all, Europeans seem to get pretty good treatment for chronic and serious diseases, even compared to well insured Americans. I'm afraid the alleged advantages of America's healthcare system continue to evade me.


Well, a lot of folks are wondering about this.

And it finally hit the mainstream press Friday, as Paul Krugman in the The York Times picked up on the conversations of the week.

See The Medical Money Pit, April 15, 2005

Krugman decides he wants to know why we are in this pickle – spending more and getting less. And he frames the question as why other advanced countries manage to spend so much less than we do, while getting better results.

He too turns to consideration of the NHS in the UK, but ays that may be a bad example -


… let me deal with the usual problem one encounters when trying to draw lessons from foreign experience: somebody is sure to bring up the supposed horrors of Britain's government-run system, which historically had long waiting lists for elective surgery.

In fact, Britain's system isn't as bad as its reputation - especially for lower-paid workers, whose counterparts in the United States often have no health insurance at all. And the waiting lists have gotten shorter.

But in any case, Britain isn't the country we want to look at, because its health care system is run on the cheap, with total spending per person only 40 percent as high as ours.

The countries that have something to teach us are the nations that don't pinch pennies to the same extent - like France, Germany or Canada - but still spend far less than we do. (Yes, Canada also has waiting lists, but they're much shorter than Britain's - and Canadians overwhelmingly prefer their system to ours. France and Germany don't have a waiting list problem.)


Okay, he’s laying the groundwork.  Compare systems that spend roughly the same per capita that we do.  Don’t consider countries like the UK where they pinch pennies.

So, what do we find?  Who is spending what?


In 2002, the latest year for which comparable data are available, the United States spent $5,267 on health care for each man, woman and child in the population. Of this, $2,364, or 45 percent, was government spending, mainly on Medicare and Medicaid. Canada spent $2,931 per person, of which $2,048 came from the government. France spent $2,736 per person, of which $2,080 was government spending.

Amazing, isn't it? U.S. health care is so expensive that our government spends more on health care than the governments of other advanced countries, even though the private sector pays a far higher share of the bills than anywhere else.


Well, it looks like we actually are spending double what the other non-penny-pinching countries are per person for healthcare.  And everyone knows you get what you pay for.  Right?

Not exactly.


Most Americans probably don't know that we have substantially lower life-expectancy and higher infant-mortality figures than other advanced countries. It would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that this poor performance is entirely the result of a defective health care system; social factors, notably America's high poverty rate, surely play a role. Still, it seems puzzling that we spend so much, with so little return.


Yes, it is a puzzlement, and Krugman has some ideas why this should be so.


… the United States scores high on high-tech services - we have lots of M.R.I.'s - but on more prosaic measures, like the number of doctors' visits and number of days spent in hospitals, America is only average, or even below average. There's also direct evidence that identical procedures cost far more in the U.S. than in other advanced countries.

… Americans spend far more on health care than their counterparts abroad - but they don't actually receive more care.


So we love our technology, but don’t much care for that human part – doctor visits and hanging around in the hospital for a leisurely recovery (which no HMO would allow anyway).  And we pay doctors too much, and, and….

But we have the best healthcare system in the world, as my conservative friend protested a year or two ago.  Most of us believe that.  The evidence is mounting that this is not so.

Ezra Klein points out that the healthcare debate in America is never going to get very far so long as the conventional wisdom is that health care alternatives in other countries are really awful.  Brad Plummer suggests why this is so.  It’s the media, but not exactly a matter of simply claiming everything America is obvious the best.  Here’s his list of problems –


1. Reporters just don't know all that much. Let's face it, covering health care issues is awfully hard—it's a complex topic!—and not many reporters do it well, even when they're writing about issues here in the United States. You pretty much have to devote yourself full-time to the subject, as, say, Robert Pear of the New York Times has. And that's just to learn the U.S. system... Not surprisingly, reporters have an especially shallow grasp of health care programs in other countries, so the coverage tends to degenerate, more than usual, into "he said, she said" affairs. In fact, I'd have to do a Nexis search, but I'd wager that it's usually not a paper's resident health expert doing stories on single-payer in, say, France or Canada. It's probably an international reporter who has a million other beats and no time to learn all the gritty details of this or that system.

2. Anecdotes count for more than statistics. This is something of an off-spurt of #1, but also a problem with the media in general, and it's especially detrimental to health care coverage. Reporters lo-o-o-ove covering the poor grandma who waits months for a hip replacement—it's a human interest story! Or those long lines for surgery. Yeesh! But here's the thing: These stories say nothing at all about health care. Everyone has a story: For every grandma waiting for a hip replacement in France, there's an uninsured American who has to pay $95 for a doctor visit to make sure she doesn't have strep throat. Cold, hard, bloodless statistics are all that really matter here, but news coverage of health care in other countries tends either to skimp on statistics or bury them in favor of the attention-grabbing anecdote.

3. Health care professionals in single-payer systems have reasons for drumming up "crisis" rhetoric. This is something that doesn't get noticed very often. For instance, in a national health care system like Canada's, every year the government has to set a budget for hospitals, limit how much doctors can charge, etc. It's a big debate, and to gain leverage, doctors of course love to talk about how there are shortages and people can't get necessary treatments and so on and so forth. Naturally, their complaints get picked up by the Canadian media and trickle on into American papers. But no one stops to think that these health care professionals are all self-interested actors who have their own reasons for playing up the system's faults.


So it’s hard to get the truth of the matter.

And Matt Yglesias adds more reasons we don’t know jack about what is for real, more reasons my conservative friend says it is hard to know what is real and what is not.


The England Problem. For linguistic and other reasons, the European country Americans are most cognizant of is the United Kingdom which happens to have a health care system (the NHS) which goes very far in the opposite direction from the U.S. system in terms of command-and-control health care and which, consequently, offers a very exaggerated version of the downsides of government-run health care.

The France Problem. While the NHS model actually has a certain appeal to me (leave that for another day), it's something that utterly lacks political appeal in the USA and isn't a realistic model for any American reforms. The most likely candidate for something we would want to imitate is France. Unfortunately for the cause of American health care reform, France and the United States have a long-term history of cultural antagonism that makes "we should do it more like they do in France" a public policy kiss of death. Worse, most people are aware that the French economy does not perform in a manner many Americans would want to imitate. People tend not to peer too closely at what it is about the French model that leads to those results, and instead the whole thing gets tarred as bad. But nothing about adopting a French-style health care system would require us to adopt French-style labor rules, French-style housing projects, French-style approaches to cultural diversity, French-style dirigisme, etc., etc., etc. Perhaps most crucially, it wouldn't force us to adopt French-style tax rates.

The Canada Problem. The US-Canada health care dynamic is asymmetrical, because wealthy Canadians can travel to the United States to take advantage of the aspects of our system that work better (for relatively prosperous people) than does their system, while working- and middle-class Americans can't go to Canada to take advantage of the aspects of their system that work better than ours. The result is that you have lots of anecdotal evidence of people fleeing Canadian waiting lists to get their hips fixed in the USA, but no anecdotal evidence of people taking their kids to Canada to get affordable, high-quality preventative care for their kids. In the limited domain of pharmaceuticals, this has changed and Americans now can (and do) go to Canada to get cheap drugs. Not coincidentally, I think, this is the area in which you have the most public support for left-wing solutions.

Cost Underestimation. Apropos of the French-style taxes, it seems natural to assume that governments which provide health care for all their citizens are spending more than are government which provide health care to only some citizens. It's natural to assume, but it isn't true. Reporting on the actual composition of federal spending is always dismal, which leads people to grossly underestimate the extent to which your tax dollars are already going to pay for health care, since Medicare is a universal coverage program for the segment of the population that is by far the most expensive to treat.

Hidden Costs. On the private-sector end, few people understand exactly how much is being spent on health care. This is because the employer side of insurance premiums is hidden from the view of all but payroll people and policy wonks. Additionally, the scale of tax subsidies provided to the health care industry is basically unknown to all beyond the elite.

Bipartisanship as Fairness. Perhaps the biggest problem is simply that since single-payer isn't the official view of the Democratic Party. One problem with "he said, she said" writing is that if he is lying, he gets to get away with it. Perhaps a bigger problem is that if he and she agree that we shouldn't do X, it winds up going without saying that X is, in fact, a terrible idea. If a major political official started insisting that France had a great health care system, you might be able to browbeat the press into acknowledging that he was right. But until someone does it, it will simply continue to be taken for granted that it must not be.

Rich Journalists. Last but by no means least, one must point out the obvious. If you're well-off and seriously ill, the American system probably is the best in the world. Even if you are wealthy, you might never have gotten so seriously ill if you'd been living in a country with proper health care, but once you are seriously ill, the USA is the place to be. Journalism is dominated by relatively prosperous people, and perceptions of the health care system are dominated by people who have a great deal of experience with it, which is to say people who have been seriously ill who who've had close family members fall seriously ill. The things the American system is really, really bad at tend to be hidden from view.


That last point is cool.  Prominent reporters have health plans, and funds if any coverage is denied, or one assumes.  They are not naturally sensing what it is like for the 40-44 million who have no healthcare insurance at all.

So what is the truth?

You could bop over to the “National Review” and read this review of Uninsured in America: Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity, where you will find this -


Rotting teeth are a consistent motif among their interviewees, and with a poignancy not often found in policy books, the authors peg tooth decay as a reliable barometer of one's employability and caste status. As one uninsured woman who works part-time in a call center (and therefore out of public view), tells them: "I've gotten toothaches so bad, so that I just literally pull my own teeth. They'll break off after a while, and then you just grab ahold of them, and they work their way out ... The hole closes itself up anyway." As the insured reader guiltily and involuntarily runs his tongue over his teeth upon reading these lines, the authors' caste argument essentially proves itself.

And there's plenty more where that came from, as the authors present through their subjects a laundry list of ominous examples of untreated suffering, ranging from gallbladder disease to diabetes to asthma, addressed alternately by hopeful neglect and homemade cocktails of alcohol and over-the-counter pain medication — or in the harrowing case of an Idaho man with recurring bone spurs in his feet, a power sander.


Not the stuff for the national news shows.

But… In 1960 Edward R. Murrow for CBS News gave us “Harvest of Shame” – first shown on Thanksgiving Day that year - about the conditions of migrant farm workers in America. That kind of put the issue on the table, and no one was thinking much about it before the show. This was, one sees, the prototype for the long-form journalistic documentaries we see now and then.

Did it do any good? In 1962, Congress enacted the Migrant Health Act, which called for the development of health care clinics for farm workers and their families, among other things. Cause and effect? Maybe.

Maybe it is time for another.

But it’s not going to happen. Murrow is long dead, and how can you compete with American Idol and the reality shows? Even CBS’s “60 Minutes” is in decline. Investigative, hard-hitting television journalism? That’s a dead as Edward R. Murrow – and if he saw what passes for hard-hitting investigative journalism these days – from Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault a few years ago to this week’s real inside news about Michael Jackson licking the heads of little boys – he’d be rolling over in his grave, except he was cremated. Ah, imagine the ashes fluffing around in outrage.

No, the mess we have made of healthcare will not be covered. This week’s conversation was an anomaly. I was surprised it moved from the blogs to the New York Times. Other matters will swamp the news cycles. And too, we want to believe we are the best at what we do.




Jesse Taylor has this to say –


Healthcare is not a true market. The availability of radically innovative procedures to help those who have the insurance and the money to pay for it in no way helps me (I get insurance soon, though!). If you're taking a $10,000 a year cocktail of drugs to get rid of your once-thought-terminal cancer, that's fantastic. However, I can't get a side hit off of your treatment, and it doesn't trickle down in the form of cheaper healthcare to me. The healthcare dynamic is not set up to function like a normal market except in very rare circumstances (the transfer of prescriptions to over the counter medications, for example), and it shouldn't be treated like one.


… The key to their argument [Drum and others] is that the lack of a job, the lack of insurance, leads to a downward spiral with moral implications. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to a complaining bride or party who feel the need to bring their paycheck(s) into the matter; the simple fact that they earn more money means they should be treated better for buying the same thing. Money is not a moral creation. It was not created to pass a judgment on those who have it, and it's generally not given out based on how pure your heart is.

But healthcare is entirely premised on this idea - those with money deserve a better quality of life in a system where having money actually allows you to reduce the cost of attaining it. If you have enough money, you can purchase insurance which allows you to reduce the cost of healthcare drastically, whether in absolute dollars or as a percentage of your income. It places a higher financial and moral value on the lives of the rich than the lives of the poor, aided only partially by such programs as Medicare and Medicaid.


Even if we reduce employer-driven insurance (which I wouldn't mind at all, considering the restrictions placed on it), we have to replace it with something. Right now, the best idea is a form of universal/single-payer system that is so cripplingly bad in socialist Europe that they live longer, healthier, and with generally better access to necessary preventative care than any American - and they spend less on it. …


Now THAT is interesting.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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