Our bodies get sick sometimes. But if we look at the American health care system as a living body itself, we’re waiting in the ER. Many Americans are pessimistic about health care costs, and no wonder. Americans spend more on health care than people do elsewhere, and we get steeper bills and–for millions of us–bankruptcy, in return. “Sick Around the World” (PBS’s Frontline film) is an astute characterization of the big health care picture, and poses the question: Can the U.S. learn a thing or two about running our health care system when we zoom in on the delivery of services provided by the UK, Japan, Germany, Taiwan and Switzerland?
T.R. Reid, the mind behind the film and a veteran correspondent for The Washington Post, cites the World Health Organization’s rating of the U.S. health care system—37th in terms of quality and fairness.
Several facts support the believability of this low rating. A recent Robert Wood Johnson study found that the total cost for family coverage nationwide increased by 30% between 2001 and 2005, while incomes only grew by 3%. And in terms of quality, Consumer Reports found that 24% of Americans’ insurance barely covers their medical needs and leaves them unprepared to pay for major medical expenses. But Reid doesn’t leave the other examined nations off the hook, citing their downsides with the understanding that what may be working for nations like Japan may not roll over well here.
It’s unfortunate that we somehow spend more money for less health care than these countries. This may partly explain the growing trend of medical tourism, where Americans are traveling to Thailand, India, Brazil and other countries for cheaper health care procedures. ABC News reports that in 2005, one Thai hospital served over 50,000 American patients, a 30 percent increase from the previous year.
As the film suggests, we should learn from both our failures and our successes. In an interview, Reid explains Switzerland’s health care reform, which resulted in universal health coverage:
Switzerland decided it didn’t want to be a society where 5% of the population was unable to see a doctor when sick. That feeling was strong enough to overcome the powerful political opposition of the drug and health insurance industries.
Our lawmakers should make it their legislative priority to get us the health care that we deserve. Thanks to the thousands of you who’ve written to us about your health care problems, the Cover America Tour, sponsored by Consumer Reports Health is on a mission to make sure politicians promote commonsense solutions with you in mind. Visit www.CoverAmericaTour.org to follow the tour, check out videos, and tell us about your own health care experience.