U.S. Health: First in Spending but Last in Results…Why?

America’s top clinical talent and mega-investments in “health services” do not correlate to better overall health compared to other countries. Learn why.

Let’s get the good news out of the way first.

If you are going to get sick and have great insurance or lots of money, there is no better place to do so than in the United States. We excel at taking care of really sick people.

Medical miracles are performed daily through an amazing pool of talented clinicians who have access to the best technology, facilities and pharmaceuticals.

In this regard, we are the envy of the rest of the world. But there remains a most vexing question: Why do we invest more in healthcare than any country on the planet to have the “best of the best”, only to come in last compared to other countries in success measures like outcomes, longevity, quality and access?

Simply put, America’s mega-investment in “health services” does not correlate to better overall health.

The Commonwealth Fund is a private foundation started in 1918 by one of America’s first female philanthropists Anna Harkness. Its mission is to research, study and promote high performing health care systems to achieve better access, improved quality, and greater efficiency, particularly for society’s most vulnerable citizens.
 
Paying More for Less
In its most recent report, Mirror, Mirror 2017: International Comparison Reflects Flaws and Opportunities for Better U.S. Health Care, the authors note that despite having the most expensive health care, the United States ranks last overall among the 11 countries on measures of health system equity, access, administrative efficiency, care delivery, and health care outcomes.

While there is room for improvement in every country, the U.S. has the highest costs and lowest overall performance of the nations in the study, which included Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The U.S. spent $10,739 per person on health care in 2017, compared to $4,094 in the U.K., which ranked first on performance overall.

Among the 11 high-income countries surveyed, the U.S. is the only one without universal health insurance coverage. The U.S. offers its citizens the least financial protection among these wealthy countries.

Since 2004, the U.S. has ranked last in every one of six similar reports.

In a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, lead author and Commonwealth Fund senior vice president for policy and research Eric Schneider, M.D. reflected on lessons from top performing countries and actions the U.S. could take to move from last to first among wealthy countries. They include:

  • Expand health insurance coverage. The highest-performing countries have universal coverage that allows people to get the health care they need at little or no cost.
  • Invest more in primary care. Spending up front to make primary care accessible, available on nights and weekends, and affordable keeps people healthier and reduces costs in the long run.
  • Cut down on paperwork. The U.S. leads the world when it comes to time spent dealing with the requirements of our cumbersome health insurance system. Reducing the administrative burden would give countless hours back to patients, caregivers, and physicians while also making the system easier for people to navigate.
  • Invest more in social services to reduce disparities. Factors beyond traditional health care, such as housing, education, nutrition, and transportation, have a substantial effect on people’s health. Investing in services that provide support in these areas can make our population healthier as a whole and reduce health care costs.

Additional report findings related to improving the U.S. health system include:

  • Access to Care: Other studies show that access to care and ability to afford care have improved markedly in the U.S. following the Affordable Care Act. Nevertheless, compared to other countries, Americans of all incomes have the hardest time affording the health care they need. The U.S. ranks last on most measures of financial barriers to care, with one-third (33%) of adults reporting they did not take a prescription drug, visit a doctor when sick, or receive recommended care in the past year because of the expense. This is four times the rates for patients in Germany (7%), the U.K. (7%), Sweden (8%), and the Netherlands (8%).
  • Health Care Outcomes: The U.S. ranks last overall on health care outcomes. Compared to other countries, the U.S. comes in last on infant mortality, life expectancy at age 60, and deaths that were potentially preventable with timely access to effective health care. However, there are some bright spots: the U.S. performs relatively well on certain clinical outcomes, such as lower in-hospital mortality rates for a heart attack or stroke and is a top performer in breast cancer survival.
  • Care Process: The U.S. ranks in the middle for care process, which is a combination of four separate measures: delivery of preventive services, safety of care, coordinated care, and patient engagement. On three of the four measures, the U.S. ranks near the top, coming in third on safety and fourth on prevention and engagement. The U.S. tends to excel on measures that involve the doctor–patient relationship, wellness counseling, and preventive care, such as mammograms and adult flu shot rates.
  • Administrative Efficiency: The U.S ranks near the bottom on this measure because of the amount of time providers and patients must spend dealing with administrative issues, duplicative medical testing, and insurance disputes. More than half (54%) of U.S. doctors reported problems trying to get their patients needed treatment because of insurance coverage restrictions. In Norway and Sweden, which rank first on this measure, only 6 percent of doctors reported this problem.

Special thanks to the Commonwealth Fund for their research as well as the outstanding materials they provide.  


For Consideration:

  • What do you see as the key reasons for the U.S. to have such low performance ratings compared to the investments made in the health system?
  • What might we learn from other countries that invest less but have health measures that are significantly better than the U.S.?
  • Do you believe this data provides a valid comparison of the performance of health systems and also reflect the “performance measures” that are important in assessing value?

Resources:

Mirror, Mirror 2017: International Comparison Reflects Flaws and Opportunities for Better U.S. Health Care:

Additional resources my be found by clicking on the “Resources” in the Navigation bar

 

2019: The Ten Greatest Threats to Health Worldwide

How should the planet’s ten biggest health threats affect our approach to health reform in the United States?

The world we live in is facing multiple health challenges. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a report detailing the top ten major threats to global health.  From outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, growing rates of obesity, to the health impacts of environmental pollution and climate change, these issues are relevant in our approach to health reform and health policy in the United States.

Here are the planet’s ten biggest health threats according to WHO:

1.    Air pollution and climate change

According to WHO, nine out of ten people breathe polluted air every day. In 2019, air pollution is considered by WHO as the greatest environmental risk to health. Microscopic pollutants in the air can penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging the lungs, heart and brain, killing 7 million people prematurely every year from diseases such as cancer, stroke, heart and lung disease.

2. Noncommunicable diseases

Seventy percent of deaths worldwide are due to noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

According to WHO, the five risk factors driving increases in noncommunicable diseases are tobacco use, alcohol use, physical inactivity, unhealthy diets, and air pollution. 

3. Influenza

The world will face another influenza pandemic – the only thing not known is when it will hit and how severe it will be. Global defenses are only as effective as the weakest link in any country’s health emergency preparedness and response system WHO says. 

4. Fragile and vulnerable settings

Over 22% of the world’s population lives in fragile settings, which are defined as places where access to basic health care is minimal, often due to being in a state of crisis and having poor health services.

Fragile settings exist in almost all regions of the world, and these are where half of the key targets in the sustainable development goals, including on child and maternal health, remain unmet. 

5. Antimicrobial resistance

The development of antibiotics, antivirals and antimalarials are some of modern medicine’s greatest successes. Now, time with these drugs is running out. Antimicrobial resistance – the ability of bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi to resist these medicines – threatens to send us back to a time when we were unable to easily treat infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and salmonellosis. The inability to prevent infections could seriously compromise surgery and procedures such as chemotherapy. 

Drug resistance is driven by the overuse of antimicrobials in people, but also in animals, especially those used for food production, as well as in the environment, according to WHO.

6. Ebola and high-threat pathogens

When it comes to responding to a high-threat pathogen such as Ebola, context is “critical,” according to WHO. The way a high-threat pathogen spreads and impacts a rural area might look very different from the way it would look in urban areas or active conflict zones—making it difficult for health systems and governments to prepare an effective emergency response.

WHO’s current watchlist of high-treat pathogens includes Ebola, Zika, SARS, and disease X—a placeholder for any unknown pathogen that could cause an epidemic.

7. Weak primary care

Primary care is supposed to be the most consistent and accessible form of health care a patient has over their lifetime, WHO explains. But when a country lacks adequate primary care facilities, patients lack affordable and comprehensive care for their needs, which can cause everyday health problems to evolve into health emergencies.

8. Vaccine hesitancy

Vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases. Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease – it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved. 

Measles, for example, has seen a 30% increase in cases globally. The reasons for this rise are complex, and not all of these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy. However, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence (including the United States). 

9. Dengue

About 40% of the world is at risk of becoming infected with dengue, a mosquito-borne illness that infects 390 million people each year and kills up to 20% of people with a severe form of the disease, according to WHO.

10. HIV

The progress made against HIV has been enormous in terms of getting people tested, providing them with antiretrovirals (22 million are on treatment), and providing access to preventive measures such as a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP, which is when people at risk of HIV take antiretrovirals to prevent infection). 

However, the epidemic continues to rage with nearly a million people every year dying of HIV/AIDS. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 70 million people have acquired the infection, and about 35 million people have died.

The list provides an overview of the top 10 health threats WHO and the organization’s partners will target under a five-year strategic plan that kicks off this year. According to WHO, the goal is to ensure one billion more people benefit from access to universal health coverage, one billion more people are protected from health emergencies, and one billion more people enjoy better health and well-being.


For Consideration:

  • Does the WHO list of the top Global Health Risks fit with what you consider to be the top health risks facing the United States?
  • Which risks as noted by WHO should be included in the top health risks faced by Americans?  
  • What other issues do you consider to be the Top Health Risks facing the United States?
  • Many of the top risks defined by WHO are “Social and Environmental Determinants of Health.” What is your view on whether these should be considered part of health reform?

Additional Resources:

Visit the World Health Organization’s web page to learn more about the Top Global Health Threats of 2019.

Review this primer on Social Determinants of Health from NEJM Catalyst.

Go deeper on Social Determinants of Health by visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website: Social Determinants of Health: Know What Affects Health

The High Cost of Self-Inflicted Disease

The role of citizens vs. government in managing health goes beyond the current health reform debate in Washington.

An issue as big as healthcare is the environment. And so, what if there was a way to dramatically improve the health of all Americans while decreasing our consumption of fossil fuels by a billion gallons a year?

Transformational new technology? Innovative legislation from Washington?  The answer is simple. We would achieve these goals by reducing the weight of the average American to what it was in 1962. [1]

Sheldon Jacobson is a computer science professor who has studied the effects of obesity and fuel consumption.  His work points to a simple matter of physics. Heavier drivers increase fuel consumption. Car engines use more energy to move more weight. The added weight Americans have packed on since the sixties costs motorists an estimated $4 billion a year.[2]

Supersizing America

Americans are being “supersized” at an alarming rate as part of a global obesity pandemic that is driven by a variety of lifestyle and environmental factors. Around the world today more people now die from obesity than malnutrition. It has overtaken tobacco as the largest cause of preventable disease.

Obesity is a real disease recognized by the American Medical Association, World Health Organization and others. Like smoking, overreliance on alcohol and drugs, it is a non-communicable disease.

Communicable diseases, like flu, malaria and measles are caused by forces in nature. Most non-communicable diseases may be influenced by things like genetics or exposure to hazardous materials in the environment, but in some manner, are self-inflicted by choices we as consumers and as a society make.[3]

Let’s use obesity to illustrate how self-inflicted diseases impact both our health and our wallet.

Today, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of American adults are either overweight or obese.[4]  Since 1980 adult obesity rates have more than doubled.[5] [6] If nothing changes 42 percent of U.S. adults will be obese by 2030 with more than ten percent of Americans being severely obese. [7] 

And while obesity is an “equal opportunity” disease affecting all walks of society, it is more pervasive and impactful among low income Americans and minorities. [8]

Beyond its direct impact, obesity is also a “gateway disease”. It dramatically increases the prevalence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, infertility, sleep apnea and other health conditions.[9]   For example, as the prevalence of obesity grows, new cases of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, hypertension and arthritis are on track to increase 10 times between 2010 and 2020 — and then double again by 2030.[10]

Over the next twenty years it is estimated that obesity will be a causal factor in 8 million cases of diabetes, seven million cases of coronary heart disease and stroke and a half million cases of cancer.[11]

A heavy price paid by all

Obesity is not only bad for our health, it’s also very expensive. Worldwide, obesity has the same economic impact as smoking or armed conflict.[12]

Within the United States, obesity-related illness treatments cost Americans an estimated $190.2 billion annually and will add another $550 billion in additional costs between now and 2030. [13] [14]

On average Americans who are obese spend more on medical services and medications than smokers and heavy drinkers. [15]  They incur 40% higher inpatient hospital costs, 27% more physician visits and outpatient costs and consume 80% more prescription drugs.[16]

Beyond direct medical, obesity impacts the productivity and competitiveness of America’s employers and workforce. A study by the Society of Actuaries estimates that U.S. employers are losing $164 billion in productivity each year due to obesity-related issues with employees.[17] The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicts that annual economic productivity loss due to obesity is likely to reach $550 billion by 2030.[18]

Without significant change, obesity-related costs will rise dramatically with increases being absorbed by employers and goods and services they provide. Consumers will be increasingly impacted by larger out of pocket expenses as well as higher taxes to support programs such as Medicare and Medicaid which are already teetering on the brink of disaster because of their national price tag. Obesity-related medical expenditures already cost these programs an extra $62 billion annually.[19]

Solving for Obesity is simple and complex

When it comes to understanding what is driving obesity and what can be done to slow or stop this epidemic, the answer is both simple and complex.

At a simple level the obesity epidemic is caused by Americans consuming more calories through food and beverages than they expend.

But the deeper answer to why this is occurring is rooted in a myriad of issues that have unfolded over the past four decades.

Today we live in a world where inactive lifestyles are the norm and inexpensive, high calorie foods and drinks are readily available 24 hours a day.

There are fewer safe places to walk or play. Parts of our communities (especially low-income neighborhoods) lack food outlets offering affordable, healthy foods. We are constantly bombarded by advertisements for unhealthy foods and beverages.

While we are all affected by these trends, our children are at greatest risk. Today, one in three American children is overweight or obese. The prevalence of obesity in children more than tripled since 1971 and is now the Number One health concern among parents in the United States, topping drug abuse and smoking.[20]

If you are a parent and want your child to be healthy, it would seem reasonable that there are simple things to do to ensure that they are not overweight or obese. For example, a study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that eliminating just 41 calories a day could halt rising body weight trends in children and teens.[21]

Unfortunately, a variety of forces make it difficult to achieve such a simple goal.

Today the majority of children in the United States are high in added sugar and fat and too low in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat and nonfat dairy products.[22]

Children are less active today than at any point in our history. On average, kids consume 7.5 hours of screen or media time a day.  In 1969, half of all children walked or biked to school. Today about 13 percent walk or bike to school.[23]

Fast food companies are specifically marketing to children and adolescents. In one study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, McDonald’s was found to have the strongest emphasis on the children’s market, with 40 percent of 44,062 ads studied aimed at kids.[24]

Beyond the blitz of airtime focused on children, the fast-food companies use free toys and popular movies to appeal to kids by focusing on promotions, brands, and logos—not on food.[25]  

As a result, on any given day, more than one third of U.S. children eat fast food.[26]  French fries are now the most common “vegetable” that kids eat, making up 25% of American children’s total vegetable intake.[27]

And so, can something like regulating fast food advertising to children (like advertising bans and warning labels for tobacco products) impact the obesity epidemic in children, which in turn, may improve health and lower medical costs?

The province of Quebec banned fast-food advertising to kids in electronic and print ads 34 years ago. And while Canada is seeing as similar explosion in childhood obesity like the United States, Quebec has the lowest childhood obesity rate in Canada.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia who studied the impact of the advertising ban in Quebec concluded two things. First, the ban resulted in a 13 percent reduction in fast food expenditures.  At the same time, they estimate that 4 billion fewer calories were consumed by children in the province.[28]

In the end, childhood obesity has many consequences for our kids and our country. The most dire is that obesity may lead to a shorter life span for our children than that of their parents.[29] Children who are obese are more than twice as likely to die before the age of 55 compared to non-obese children.[30]

Solving for the Obesity epidemic brings us face-to-face with the need to better understand and make decisions as part of the health reform debate. Like other self-inflicted diseases (think smoking/vaping, alcohol/drugs), highlighting the consequences of Obesity illustrates the need to broaden the health reform discussion to include a view towards creating new paradigms and models to prevent or mitigate many of the health issues we now face.   Failure to do this means such medical and health conditions will continue to fill hospitals beds, cost more in dollars and deaths that would otherwise be prevented.


For Consideration:

  • What is your view in how to balance the responsibility of a citizen to manage their own health with the role government plays in legislating or regulating products and services in an attempt to create healthier environments and citizens?
  • Should drinks containing high amounts of sugar be regulated or taxed in an effort to reduce obesity (similar treatment to how alcohol and tobacco are taxed and regulated)?
  • What other actions might be taken by state and local governments to put forward legislation or regulations to create healthier environments which encourage a high level of health status or mitigate the effects of personal choices leading to a growing number of Americans who are destined to have costly health and medical conditions that could be avoided?

Additional Resources:

“Sugar: Consumption at A Crossroads” by the Credit Suisse Research Institute

Get the Facts: Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Consumption from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Learn more about Noncommunicable Diseases with news and information from the World Health Organization.


References:

[1] Sheldon Jackson (2006,2008), The Engineering Economist. “The Economic Impact of Obesity on Automobile Fuel Consumption,” published in The Engineering Economist (Volume 51, Number 4, 307-323, October –December 2006)

[2] Ibid

[3] Noncommunicable diseases fact sheet, (2013), World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs355/en/

[4] Flegal KM, Carroll MD, Ogden CL, et al.  Prevalence and Trends in Obesity among U.S. Adults, 19992008. Journal of the American Medical Association, 303(3): 235-41, 2010.

[5] National Center for Health Statistics.  “Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity and Extreme Obesity among Adults.”

[6] Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM.  Prevalence of Obesity in the United States, 2009-2010.  NCHS data brief, no 82.  Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 2012.

[7] Ibid

[8] Trust for America’s Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future — 2011.  http://www.tfah.org/report/88/ (accessed July 2012).  Based on data using the previous BRFSS methodology in use from 2008-2010.

[9] Y Claire Wang, Klim McPerhson, Tim Marsh, Steven L. Gortmaker, Martin Brown. Health and economic burden of othe projected obesity trends in the USA and the UK. The Lancet. 2011. 815-827

[10] F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future. Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 2012.

[11] Y Claire Wang, Klim McPerhson, Tim Marsh, Steven L. Gortmaker, Martin Brown. Health and economic burden of other projected obesity trends in the USA and the UK. The Lancet. 2011. 815-827

[12] Overcoming Obesity: An Initial Economic Analysis, McKinsey Global Institute, November 2014 http://www.mckinsey.com/Insights/Economic_Studies/How_the_world_could_better_fight_obesity

[13] John Cawley, Chad Meyerhoefer. The medical care costs of obesity: An instrumental variables approach. Journal of Health Economics, 2012; 31 (1): 219 DOI: 10.1016/j.jhealeco.2011.10.003

[14] [14] Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM.  Prevalence of Obesity in the United States, 2009-2010.  NCHS data brief, no 82.  Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 2012.

[15] Sturm R.The Effects of Obesity, Smoking,and Problem Drinking on Chronic Medical Problems and Health Care Costs.Health Affairs.2002;21(2):245–253.

[16] Ibid

[17]  Overweight and obesity study. Society of Actuaries. 2009. https://www.soa.org/Research/Research-At-A-Glance.aspx

[18] Trust for America’s Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future — 2011. 

[19] Finkelstein, Trogdon, Cohen, et al.  “Annual Medical Spending Attributable to Obesity”.

[20] Overweight in Children, American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyKids/ChildhoodObesity/Overweight-in-Children_UCM_304054_Article.jsp#.WGavuWwzWbg

[21] Wang YC, Orleans CT and Gortmaker SL.  Reaching the Healthy People Goals for Reducing Childhood Obesity: Closing the Energy Gap.  Am J Prev Med, doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2012.01.018, 2012.

[22] Ibid

[23] The National Center for Safe Routes to School, 2011.   http://guide.saferoutesinfo.org/introduction/the_decline_of_walking_and_bicycling.cfm

[24] Fast-Food Television Ads Use Toys, Movies to Target Kids. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. April 2013. http://www.rwjf.org/en/library/articles-and-news/2013/08/fast-food-television-ads-use-toys–movies-to-target-kids.html

[25] Ibid

[26] Caloric Intake From Fast Food Among Children and Adolescents in the United States, 2011–2012. Centers for Disease Control. September 2015. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db213.htm

[27] Obesity in Infants to Preschoolers. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyKids/ChildhoodObesity/Obesity-in-Infants-and-Preschoolers-Infographic_UCM_467593_SubHomePage.jsp

[28] Fast Food Consumption and the Ban on Advertising Targeting Children: The Quebec Experience. Tirtha Dhar Assistant Professor, Division of Marketing, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia. April 2011. http://www.marketingpower.com/aboutama/documents/jmr_forthcoming/fast_food_consumption.pdf

[29] American Heart Association, 2010; Olshansky et al., 2005

[30] Franks PR, Hanson W, Knowler M, et al.  “Childhood Obesity, Other Cardiovascular Risk Factors, and Premature Death.”  New England Journal of Medicine, 362(6):485-93, 2010.

Two Important Numbers in Health Reform are 5 & 50

5 & 50 are two numbers that explain where half of all healthcare expenditures go in America today and represent a key area health reform must address.

We often here about the $3.5 trillion we invest annually for Healthcare in the United States. Breaking this down further, this means we spend an average of  $10,739 per citizen.

This last number demonstrates how statistics can sometimes be misleading. As noted, we spend an average of $10,739 per citizen.  But, understanding where the money is actually going provides a key insight as to why our investments are high but results are often lower than other countries spending less.

Look closely at where the money goes you see that five percent of people account for 50 percent of total health spending.

Think about these stats for a moment.

Health-care spending represents almost one-fifth of the United States’ economy.

In digging further into these numbers, the data from the National Institute for Health Care Management suggests that the health problems of about 15 million Americans consume almost one-tenth of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United States — around $1.7 trillion.

Those citizens in the “five percent” group are known as “super users” of the health system.  They include the “sickest-of-the-sick” or have multiple chronic conditions requiring intense and continuous care regimens.

We are bombarded with stats that show, on average, the United States spends more on health per citizen than any other country on the planet. The reality is that most of these expenditures are concentrated on fewer people entering the health system once they are very ill (including being admitted to expensive, technology rich environments when nearing end-of-life).

Ethicists often ponder the issue of distributive justice…How do we use a finite amount of resources to do the most good for the most people?

To raise the question above is not to suggest we turn our backs on those women and men who are members of the medical “super-users” group whose lives (including quality of life) are dependent on utilizing the system in place today.  

If we are serious about true reform, the deeper issue to consider is how we change the systems super-users are dependent on to better serve their needs while becoming more effective stewards of the resources required to meet the needs of this vulnerable population.

As we look ahead, these questions are worth considering by anyone in, or touched by, the current healthcare system.


For Consideration:

  • What is your view on whether half of all resource expenditures should go towards supporting the needs of a small group of people?
  • The rapid growth of the elderly population (a baby-boomer now turns 65 every 15 seconds and will for the next decade) will expand the size of the “super-user” group requiring intensive & costly services. What alternative or innovative ideas would support the needs of this population while making better use of our resources?
  • Do you know someone who is a “super user” of the health system? What services are they dependent on? What might you change to better serve his or her needs while make better use of resources?

Resources:

If you want to go deeper in exploring this topic:

There is a great article in the Atlantic by writers Karen Weintraub and Rachel Zimmerman. Fixing the 5 Percent is a thoughtfully-written piece that explores both the problem as well as solutions others are pioneering to improve the effectiveness of services and costs.

If you want to delve deeper in the actual data and trends download this PDF from the Agengy for Healthcare Quality and Research


References:

National Health Expenditures by type of service and source of funds, CY 1960-2015. CMS.   https://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/NationalHealthExpendData/Downloads/NHE2015.zi

“UNDERSTANDING U.S. HEALTH CARE SPENDING”. National Institute of Healthcare Management, July, 2011. http://www.bcnys.org/inside/health/2011/HealthCarePremiumsNIHCM0711.pdf

“The High Concentration of U.S. Health Care Expenditures”. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. https://archive.ahrq.gov/research/findings/factsheets/costs/expriach/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/19/the-two-most-important-numbers-in-american-health-care

The Single Most Important Question in the Reform Debate

Regardless of your political leanings your approach to any reform proposal will be anchored to this single question.

Regardless of your political views or social priorities, your approach to any health reform proposal or debate should be anchored to a single question. Directly or indirectly, how you answer this question is central to evaluating any proposal for creating sustainable reform.

The question that is foundational to all others in the health reform debate comes down to this:

Is healthcare a right or a privilege?

For the record, while most other developed countries have constitutionally declared or legislated healthcare as a right for all citizens, America has not. This is not an editorial comment but a statement of fact.

When the framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights were defining fundamental human rights, average life expectancy was 35 years of age. [i]  The concept of “healthcare” as we know it today simply did not exist.

Healthcare as a right means that all citizens are guaranteed access to some level of care or services. While the type or level of service might change, the commitment of equal access to “something” does not.

For example, Canada decreed healthcare as a right in 1984.  Their system is known for guaranteeing all citizens access to certain services but often then keep patients waiting in line to access services based on budgetary targets. The United Kingdom guarantees all citizens the right to care with a founding principle of “free at the point of service” but often have some people waiting in line for service while others buy supplemental insurance policies that allow them to “jump the que” and gain better access to services.

Regardless of how the system is organized, or how well it actually works, healthcare as a right means that there is a safety net that catches all citizens.

The debate about healthcare as a right in America began with the advent of two events in history.

The first was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. A massive shift of people going from working on farms to factories gave rise to a new set of health issues and began the debate on the role of private companies and the government in providing for the health of workers and citizens.

Around the same time medicine moved out of the shadows of quackery and into the realm of being a repeatable, scientific discipline.

Ever since, America has wrestled with whether healthcare is a right or privilege.

In the 1940’s President Roosevelt attempted to address the issue of whether healthcare is a right as part of a broader social initiative known as America’s “Second Bill of Rights.”

As WWII was coming to a close, FDR put forward a sweeping social program known as America’s Second Bill of Rights that included healthcare.

In 1945 President Truman proposed a national health program to include all Americans declaring in a speech to Congress “We should resolve now that the health of this Nation is a national concern; that financial barriers in the way of attaining health shall be removed; that the health of all its citizens deserves the help of all the Nation.”  It was denounced by the American Medical Association and called a communist plot by a House subcommittee.[ii]

The Clinton administration made healthcare their top platform priority but failed to get a plan through Congress.

Finally, the Affordable Care Act was passed during the Obama administration (aka Obamacare) in 2010 that created vehicles for citizens to have access to health plans while mandating coverage and fines for those choosing not to participate. The Trump administration from the outset worked to disassemble the Affordable Care Act.

The brief history of Affordable Care Act noted above is a cautionary tale that shows us that until healthcare is deemed a right, the fate of lasting reform will rise and fall based on the whims and views of those who control Congress and the White House (This situation continues to play out as I write this article).

An interesting corollary to the right to healthcare is our view and laws pertaining to the “right” to education. While the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly enumerate a positive fundamental right to education, a series of court decisions and legislation provide any citizen a right to a certain level of education.

As daunting as it may seem, American voters, business and political leaders have shown that they can commit to healthcare as a right in certain circumstances.

Healthcare has been decreed as a right in certain situations and for certain people. As part of the Great Society, congress enacted legislation in 1965 to guarantee seniors the right to healthcare via the Medicare program and to assist states in the provision of health services to the indigent via Medcaid.

And, since 1986, all citizens have a right to assistance in an emergency room…Unfortunately, the law only requires that a patient be stabilized. [iii]  After that you are subject to the whims of the situation.

If you believe that healthcare is a right, then any proposal for reform must call out and explicitly address this issue.


For Consideration:

  • Do you believe healthcare to be a right or a privilege?
  • If you believe healthcare to be a right, the question that follows is “a right to what?”  Is there a set of services to which everyone has access?
  • How should any proposal for reform address these fundamental questions?

Additional Resources

To better understand the history of this issue in the United States, see the article , Health Reform – What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been.

Learn which countries have Universal Health Access and explore how each has achieved this status (single payer, private system mandates, other models) from Wikipedia.

References:

[i] http://keywen.com/en/LIFE_EXPECTANCY

[ii] Dr. Howard Markel, “69 years ago, a president pitches his idea for national health care”. November 19, 2014. PBS Newshour. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/november-19-1945-harry-truman-calls-national-health-insurance-program/

[iii] Health Care for Some: Rights and Rationing in the United States since 1930. Beatrix Hoffman.  University of Chicago Press. 2012

Health Reform Heroes: What can we learn from Rwanda?

Only twenty percent of citizens have electricity, but everyone has universal access to this life-changing service.

Other countries have proven that health, government and business leaders can work together to decide on what all citizens should have access to and create programs to provide universal access even in the most challenging of circumstances.

Such is the case in Rwanda. Five years ago, the government made a commitment to create a nationwide program to provide universal eye care to all citizens.

Why vision care? More than 2.5 billion people around the world suffer from poor vision without access to even the most basic treatment. Poor vision affects the ability of a child to see a classroom chalkboard or learn to read. It affects an adult’s ability to work.  

Making a singular commitment of providing universal access to vision care for all citizens was just right for a country like Rwanda. This choice addressed a health issue affecting all citizens, did not require an expensive, high tech solution and contributed to health improvement in ways that help break the cycle of poverty, especially for women.

To make universal access to eye care possible, a public-private partnership with Vision for a Nation was created to train nurses, build supply chains for glasses and eye medications, and visit all 15,000 of the country’s villages.

As of last year, the government took over responsibility for the management and financing of the services. To date, more than 2.4 million eye screenings have been carried out with over 1.2 million treatments provided.

And so, what does the good work in Rwanda have to do with health reform in the United States? Let us recognize that the United States and Rwanda are worlds apart geographically, economically and socially. But let us also not lose sight of the fact that in a poor country where less than 20 percent of the population have access to electricity, all citizens have access to a health service that improves health and allows them to lead better lives. This life-changing service is available to all because the leaders of Rwanda made it a priority and built a coalition of like-minded people and organizations to make it a reality.

As we look ahead to the process of defining, debating and developing new approaches to the health delivery system in America, imagine if elected leaders would start by “crossing the aisle” to select one thing to which all citizens would have access. This focus would provide the dual benefit of measurably improving outcomes while empowering citizens to lead more healthy productive lives. At the same time it would demonstrate that those we’ve sent to Washington D.C. could actually work together to accomplish something meaningful.


For Consideration:

  • If the United States could demonstrate change by providing its citizens universal access to one service or area, what would it be (and why)?
  • Do you believe all citizens should have equal access to a set of services? If yes, broadly what should be covered?
  • Consider asking your elected officials what one thing would they be most willing to champion to improve access to health services that benefit everyone.

Additional Resources:

Learn more about the work of Vision for a Nation and its mission to unlock the potential of the world’s poorest communities by making eye care globally accessible.