Imagine a nation with a terrible problem -- one its leaders refuse to discuss. The problem will needlessly drain trillions of dollars from its economy in the next 10 years.
Now imagine that this problem also robs that nation's citizens of life itself, draining years from their lifespans while depriving them of large sums of money. Imagine that it sickens and disables countless others, drives many people into bankruptcy, and kills more than two newborn infants out of every thousand born.
Imagine that fixing this problem would result in a dramatic decline in publicly-held debt. It wouldn't just "help" the debt problem, mind you -- it would cause that debt to plunge.
And now imagine a national "deficit debate" which completely ignores this problem.
Imagine a news media which pretends the problem doesn't exist. Imagine a corporate-funded "Fix the Debt" movement that refuses to mention it, and yet is treated as an objective source of information. Imagine a political consensus in which the debate isn't around how to fix this problem, but how to cut service programs that help people cope with it.
Welcome to the United States of America, January 2013. It's a land where the population is broke, sick, cheated and mistreated. But the problem's fixable -- if we can find the political will.
The problem, of course, is our health care system -- although "system" seems like a flattering word for this greed-driven, anarchic three-ring circus. Our health care system -- guess we'll need to call it that for lack of an alternative -- is the worst in the developed world. It costs far more, provides much less, and has worse outcomes than any system that's even remotely comparable.
How bad is it?
Our health care spending is 17.6 percent of GDP, compared with an average of 9.6 percent for all developed countries. (All figures are from the compendium of health and economic statistics published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), unless otherwise indicated.)
Total health spending (from all sources, not just insurance-related) averages $7,960 per person in the United States, versus an average of $3,233 for all developed countries.
If we spent the same on health as the average developed country (as a percentage of GDP) that would inject more than a trillion dollars per year into other parts of the economy. ($1.14 trillion, by my rough calculation.)
What are we getting for our money?
- Life expectancy at birth in the United States is 78.2 years, compared with an OECD average of 79.5 years and Japan's life expectancy of 83 years.Our expected lifespan is the shortest of any among the countries we normally think of as "developed." The ones that trail us are newer entrants into the "developed" category -- like Mexico, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia and the Eastern European countries.
- Our infant mortality rate is 6.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, as opposed to the OECD average of 4.4 deaths. As with life expectancy, we lag behind all the other long-term "developed" nations.
- We score even more poorly on another metric, "Premature Mortality," which measures the number of years someone loses "before their time" (essentially by calculating how many years it would have taken on average to reach the age of 70).
Our high rates of premature mortality are affected by our high rates of accidents and suicide, too, and from a homicide rate for males that's five times the average. (That's a figure worth citing in the gun control debate.)