Health care needs to be changed, now

Reforming America’s health care system is a daunting task largely because it is so dysfunctional to begin with. We pay more for health care than any other country in the world by far and have some of the worst overall health outcomes. Our costs are also rising faster than most other countries.

Nuts and bolts of how we’re going to pay for health care reform are complex and out of my depth, but it’s clear we have to do something to fix our current system soon. If we don’t, at the rate we’re going, we’ll be terribly inconvenienced and unhealthy, if not bankrupt.

Almost every aspect of American health care costs from prescription drugs to hospital care to program administration has increased faster than wages and inflation since 1990.

And average workers aren’t the only ones struggling to afford health care coverage, their bosses are worrying about it too. Since 1999, employer-sponsored health care premiums have increased by 119 percent, and are currently the fastest-growing expense for many businesses.

Many of America’s health care expenses exist because we are so dependent on private companies to facilitate our access to physicians, from unnecessary and ineffective procedures to lost medical files or clerical errors between hospitals and insurance companies.

Medical error contributes to far more lawsuits than medical malpractice. Standardized electronic records would greatly reduce these insurance costs and enable physicians to more accurately grasp their patients’ medical histories, since many Americans don’t have a “home” clinic they patronize for extended periods.

Private insurance companies also try extremely hard to deny people treatment when they actually need it, or charge them maximum premiums to join a plan because of any technicality they can get away with. I find this not only unethical but outright greedy as insurance profits are astronomical to begin with and consumers have little recourse but to suffer.

Although many insurance companies are currently experiencing lower profits than they had seen the past several years, it’s mostly because so many employees have been laid off. Therefore industry profits are lower due to the loss of insurance coverage. Existing premiums are still rising quickly, and the largest insurance companies make hundreds of millions, sometimes billions of dollars in annual profit.

Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry has posted average annual profits three times higher than the Fortune 500 average since 2000, sometimes growing by 18 percent in a year. This is money that could be used to finance increased medical access or service. At the very least, consumers could benefit from a public option competing alongside private insurance, if only to drive costs down.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 75 percent of America’s health care expenditures go to treating chronic disease. But preventive care has always been more cost-effective than advanced treatment, so it’s not like that’s a bad thing to spend money on.

It’s true that the elderly have more chronic illness and our aging population will shift many private health care costs to the public sector as more baby boomers reach Medicare eligibility. But while aging will cost our system more than 30 years from now, it is not expected to be the dominant contributor to our total costs and remedying systematic inefficiencies in health care will more than offset these added costs.

Even without the money to motivate us, our current system is a mess and is something we should be concerned about improving if we expect to ever use an American hospital. Our health care system rates much worse in customer satisfaction polls than in Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and Germany; all countries that have adopted public health care coverage at least as an option.

Only 16 percent of Americans reported relative satisfaction with their health care system, and 34 percent of Americans wanted to “completely rebuild” the health care system, the lowest and highest rates for the countries polled, respectively.

Still, Americans may be the most obese, sedentary and stressed people on the planet. This isn’t good for long-term public health, especially for poor people who are generally farther from grocery stores and closer to pollution sources. Any attempts to reduce preventive diseases and dependence on doctor visits should address those problems as well, so taxpayers aren’t footing the bill for treating a lifetime of illness the moment someone turns 65.

While it is true that senior citizens in America enjoy a high level of health compared to other countries, this is likely because of Medicare, one of the most popular government programs in American history. Upon reaching age 65, Americans are entitled to taxpayer-funded, socialized health care.

Jon Stewart once quipped, “America has the best health care in the world, if you can afford it.” But an increasing number of Americans cannot afford it and as a whole our general health infrastructure for Americans is an embarrassment that will only cost us more in years to come. Years when today’s St. Thomas students will be working and starting families.

I’m never going to see the money I pay into Social Security or Medicare ever again. I’ve accepted this. It’s not easy living on a fixed income and I don’t see why anyone should have to choose between food or medicine in the richest, most technologically-advanced country in the world.

But the American Association of Retired Persons is the most powerful lobby in Congress and I suspect we’d see a lot more agitation in favor of health care reform if senior citizens didn’t already have public health care coverage, which they seem to love.

I hate to keep going after old people, but if elderly Americans want to carry signs that say “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” maybe we should tell them, “Fine. But if you don’t want to change our dysfunctional health care system, keep your wrinkled hands off my paychecks.”

Zack can be reached at

2 Replies to “Health care needs to be changed, now”

  1. Stop reading the New York Times and reciting the liberal lines.  One of the nation’s top health care providers is a non-profit, Blue Cross/Blue Shield.  You also make it sound like the nation’s health care system is entirely inept, if this were true, Americans would got to Canada for help, rather than vice versa.  I know it sounds cool to be on a college campus and idealize socialism and Che( a terrorist who killed a lot of people, not a ‘freedom fighter’), but think sensibly and understand that those private companies making profits makes our system the best, though flawed, in the world.  

  2. David, if health insurance is so great why are so many Americans left without health insurance? Even people who can pay for insurance are getting turned down because of pre-existing medical conditions and are now having to pay for all of their medical bills out of pocket. Blue Cross/Blue Shield is a great example of what is so wrong with this system. They have been unable to keep their rates low which is something they promised to do. They have also been turning a lot of people away because they know they can’t make money off of them. It is all great when you are in college and covered under mommy and daddy’s health plan but what happens when you graduate?

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