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Poor Little Greece Has Better Health Care than the U.S.?

Compared to the money we spend, the U.S. health system is an appalling, inefficient disaster that neither political party has been able to address.
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One of the main indices of the success of a nation or its government is the health of its citizens. Life expectancy is the most verifiable statistic to determine this. Considering the U.S.'s dismal health care performance, this should be a major election issue. But it is not.

A fascinating article today by David Leonhardt (one of the New York Times' best and most interesting writers) picked up a theme I wrote about three months ago (Cuba Has Better Medical Care Than the U.S.).

John Econopouly had identical hernia operations in Northern California and Greece giving him a chance to do his own little comparative study of American and European medicine, according to Leonhardt.

The U.S. surgery didn't go so well.

After spending a few hours in the hospital as an outpatient, Mr. Econopouly went to a friend's house to sleep off the surgery and found that his wound had reopened. "I woke up in a pool of blood and didn't know what to do," he remembered. "Basically, I didn't feel cared for."

"For this, he paid more than $2,000 over and above the thousands of dollars that his insurance policy paid."

The Greece medical care a few months later was much more thorough than it had been in the United States. "He spent the day before the operation undergoing tests, including one that discovered a heart murmur, and the day after the operation in the hospital being observed. Although he didn't have Greek health insurance, his final bill was only $700."

Compared to the money we spend, the U.S. health system is an appalling, inefficient disaster that neither political party has been able to address.

Most developed countries do a much better job, at a cheaper cost, of keeping their citizens from needlessly dying, according to most studies.

Figures from the World Health Organization clearly show that The United States lags behind 36 other countries in overall health system performance ranging from infant mortality, to adult mortality, to life expectancy. 20 countries in Europe and four countries in Asia have a better life expectancy than the U.S. If you are a male between the ages of 15 and 59 your chances of dying are higher in the U.S. (140 per thousand) than in Canada (95), Costa Rica (127), Chile (134), and Cuba (138). The U.S. Health system looks especially dysfunctional when you consider how much money we spend per capita - about $6,000 per year for health care, twice as much as any other country - and how little we get for it. In Greece, according to Leonhardt, the government and individuals spend about $2,300 per capita on health care each year, and the average life expectancy is 79 years. In the United States, we spend more than $6,000, yet life expectancy is below 78.

Canada spends $2,163 and boasts a life expectancy two and a half years longer than the U.S. Switzerland spends about 11% of its Gross Domestic Product on universal health care for all its citizens, while the U.S. (with 47 million uninsured) spends 15% of GDP with embarrassing results. Why has our vaunted, free enterprise system - which has produced such great benefits in delivery of most goods and services - failed so completely with regard to this most fundamental need? One answer is that health care doesn't seem to be amenable to some of the basic rules of supply and demand that govern other consumer transactions. Sick people don't negotiate with doctors or hospitals or drug companies.

This vulnerability has been exploited and hijacked by greedy doctors, drug companies, insurers, personal injury lawyers, HMOs, and hospitals. About 50% of health care funds never even get to doctors or hospitals -which themselves run bloated operations. The crisis has become especially acute during the past four years. Ordinary people cannot afford these grossly inflated prices, which for some families total more than $20,000 per year. 47 million Americans, including 6 million children, are not covered by health insurance and this number grows by a million and a half each year. Even big business is now being hobbled by astronomical healthcare costs and U.S. companies are having a hard time competing in world markets. General Motors spends more on worker health care ($1,500 per vehicle) than they spend on steel for each car they produce. "The three big auto makers are 'HMOs on wheels'," says Goldman Sachs analyst Gary Lapidus. What is true is that our country has the best medicine in the world with the best doctors, the newest techniques, the latest high tech machines, and the best drugs. Wealthy people from all over the world come to the U.S. for the most advanced treatment and pay cash. The best U.S. health care is very good for rich foreigners and wealthy Americans and unavailable to millions of ordinary citizens.

What a disgrace.

-Blake Fleetwood

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