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Fixing health care system an emergency

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By Peter Thomson
Columnist

Sunday, August 25, 2019

A lot of the kerfuffle these days in Raleigh, Washington and on the Democratic presidential campaign trail is over health care. The hyper-partisan slanging matches are pervasive: Socialist Pinko, Enemy of Free Choice, Tool of Big Pharma: you can tell when they’re getting serious, not by the deals they make (there is little agreement on anything), but by the names they call the opposition.

So, putting aside for a moment the crazy quilt of public, private, public-private, HMO (health maintenance organization), managed corporate, and Veterans Administration insurance carriers that makes up our national health care system, what are these folks really talking about, and why are partisan legislators so energized?

According to the World Health Organization, in 1990 the United States ranked 6th in the world in health care. Not too bad, eh? There were a few northern European countries and then us. Twenty-seven years later, the cost of our health care had soared: we had new drugs, new hospitals and new techniques, but worldwide our ranking had fallen to 27th: just behind Dominica and a tad above Slovenia. Depending upon the experts, and what outcomes they use as models, we are ranked as high as 19th in the world and as low as 37th, while our per-capita costs are double the average of the leading countries. So we pay twice as much as others and are ranked among the worst in life expectancy, infant mortality, quality of primary care in unmanaged asthma and are only among the leaders in breast cancer survivors and a few other specialties.

Today, according to the Kaiser-Peterson Foundation, the price of health care for each person — every man, woman and child — is over $10,000. Economists also tell us that keeping this system going will require, by 2025, over 20 percent of our gross national product: an unmanageable cost for the country.

So we’re spending double the money while sliding down the world scale of healthy countries. We have more doctors per capita than most; fewer hospital beds than the best (perhaps reflecting the insurance industry’s tendency to limit hospital visits); and are less healthy than others. And it’s getting worse.

Some of the reasons are easy to pinpoint. Peterson tells us that almost 30 percent of the money we spend on health care is wasted by unnecessary, ineffective and overpriced procedures. This amounts to $765 billion a year, and yup, that’s $765 with a big “B,” as in billion. Unquestionably some of this is due to insurance and government protocols but some represents the cost of multiple co-pays requiring large backroom staffs. Some is also the result of our health institutions encouraging multiple tests in order to pad the bottom line. There’s also the fact our national health care institutions pay much more than other countries for common drugs.

So how do we solve this landslide of a medical problem? A start would be for all of us to recognize that this system (which we hurry to say contains many highly competent, caring folks), is not working, and that a Band-Aid will not fix it. For the richest and most powerful country in the world to have a failing health care system is absurd, but to change things we must demand that our legislators regard our broken system as a national emergency and urgently work together toward a solution.

We need to act before the torch in the Statue of Liberty is changed to a jar from a convenience store with a slit in the top and the slogan “For Medical Expenses.”

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.

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