Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The American Decline: Health & Healthcare

By Sean M. Kennedy

The following is Part II in a three-part series documenting 'The American Decline'. You can read Part I here and Part III here.

As Teddy Roosevelt so famously noted, "No country can be strong if its people are sick and poor."

Americans are indeed a sick and unhealthy bunch. Poor? Well, that's another story for another time.

At present, one-third of American adults are obese. And another third are overweight. Yet, researchers at Harvard University are predicting that the worst is yet to come. If current trends continue, they say, the obesity rate in the US could reach at least 42 percent by mid-century.

As it stands, obesity has already reached epidemic proportions in the US, and it is taking a staggering toll on the nation's health and its healthcare system. It is also driving a variety of other diseases.

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), nearly 24 million American children and adults now have diabetes, and another 57 million Americans are at high risk of developing the disease. Doctors across the nation call the scourge a modern American epidemic.

Diabetes is a particularly nasty disease. Two out of every three people with diabetes will die from heart disease or stroke, both largely preventable diseases. And 90 percent of diabetes cases are Type II, which is also largely preventable with lifestyle changes.

Since 1987, the death rate from diabetes has increased by 45%. And the total annual diabetes-related costs may exceed $218 billion, according to the ADA.

Americans are afflicting themselves with a variety of preventable lifestyle diseases, and the average American's life span is shorter than it ought to be. However, according to a new report, a lack of access to proper healthcare seems to be the reason.

Researchers at Columbia University report that the US is now 49th in life expectancy, putting it lower than a dozen other developed nations.

While some might assume that things like smoking, obesity, traffic accidents and a high murder rate are the reason, they are not to blame. Instead, the Columbia researchers say the culprit seems to be poor healthcare.

The researchers compared the United States to Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland, all of which provide universal health insurance. On the other hand, the US, where 15 percent of the population lacks health insurance, just passed healthcare reform in March.

The Columbia team noted that the US has been dropping in life expectancy tables for decades.

“In 1950, the United States was fifth among the leading industrialized nations with respect to female life expectancy at birth, surpassed only by Sweden, Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands,” they wrote. At last count, the United States was 46th in female life expectancy; 49th for both sexes.

As recently as 1999, the US was ranked 24th in life expectancy by the World Health Organization. So we are moving in the wrong direction very quickly.

Apparently, this is not a problem that money can solve. In fact, the US is plowing trillions into healthcare and getting very little in return.

The US commits a staggering $2.5 Trillion annually to healthcare spending. Yet, we have worse outcomes than many third-world nations. We spend more than any other nation in total dollars, per capita, and as a percentage of GDP. And yet we still have terrible results. That's neither wise nor efficient. In fact, it can only be described as an utter failure.

Despite that absolutely massive amount of spending, health outcomes in the US are simply awful.

Whoever says, “You get what you pay for,” clearly hasn’t seen America's deplorable healthcare statistics.

The findings are not unique, and they are not new either.

In 2000, the World Health Organization ranked the US 37th of 191 countries for "overall health system performance," 72nd for "level of health," and first for "health expenditures per capita."

Sadly, American adults aren't the only ones with a shortened life expectancy. Even American babies have shorter life spans than babies in other nations.

In 2009, the National Center for Health Statistics ranked the US 30th in global infant mortality rates, behind most European countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Israel.

And out of 20 “rich countries” measured by UNICEF, the US ranks 19th in “child well-being”.

How many more statistics do we need, from different groups and agencies, to conclude that the American healthcare system is a mess? If it were a patient, it would be listed in critical condition and on life support.

Once again, this isn’t due to a lack of money.

In June, the Commonwealth Fund, which researches and advocates for healthcare reform, reported that Americans spend twice as much on healthcare as residents of other developed countries — $7,290 per person — but get lower quality and less efficiency.

Despite all of these facts, last year, many people were screaming that our healthcare was just fine and should just be left alone. In the end, we ended up with a 2,000 page monstrosity for a healthcare bill, written by the pharmaceutical and insurance industries.

It was just further proof that corporations own and run America, serving their own narrow interests. They have bought and paid for our elected officials. Unlike the rest of America, corporations are certainly getting what they paid for.

Yet, we don't even do the simple things right in the US.

Despite its advanced technologies, the US suffers from alarming rates of medical errors and poor results, even though it spends absolutely massive sums on healthcare.

The US has an ass-backwards system that relies on drugs and surgery instead of wellness and prevention. The US now ranks last out of 19 countries in deaths that could have been prevented with timely and effective medical care.

Americans simply lack access and preventative care. And when they do get care, the results are often disastrous.

According to new findings from the Inspector General’s office of the Department of Health and Human Services, medical mistakes kill 15,000 Medicare patients a month, which equates to 180,000 Medicare deaths per year.

Equally disturbing, two million Americans enter the hospital for what should be routine surgery each year, only to be afflicted by hospital-acquired infections. And those hospital infections are the 4th leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, hospital acquired infections kill as many people in the US annually as AIDS, breast cancer, and auto accidents combined.

Are you feeling outraged and ripped off yet?

Prescription painkillers have now surpassed heroin and cocaine as the leading cause of fatal overdoses.

According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, accidental — or unintentional — poisoning from prescription opioids, sedatives and tranquilizers is now the second leading cause of unintentional injury death in the US.

Among people 35 to 54 years old, unintentional poisoning has surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of unintentional injury death.

And according to Johns Hopkins Medical School, medical errors and prescription drugs together may actually be the leading cause of death.

In other words, our primary forms of healthcare appear to be the biggest killers of Americans. Imagine that.

We don't spend our money wisely to prevent disease in the first place. We spend most of it after people are already in crisis and at the end-stage of their lives.

In 2008, Medicare paid $50 billion just for doctor and hospital bills during the last two months of patients’ lives — that’s more than the budget of the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Education.

While care goes down, costs just keep going up.

Last year, in the midst of a historic recession, the nation’s five largest health insurers increased their profits by 56%, to over $12 billion. Of greatest concern is that insurance premiums are growing at four times the rate of wages.

This litany of problems only provides further evidence that our nation is in rapid decline. It’s both sad and disturbing. We are spiraling downward at a breakneck pace. This is backed by facts, by evidence and by research.

There is a pervasive lie passed around that the US has the greatest healthcare system in the world. That is clearly untrue. It could be more accurately described as an inefficient mess, a disaster, and a complete failure to our citizenry. But many people love to delude themselves behind the mantra that the US is No. 1.

Sadly, the US' healthcare rankings are shameful, embarrassing and perhaps irrevocable. There are many forces aligned who like this messy disaster of a system just the way it is.

The larger aspects of our mammoth healthcare bill will kick in by 2014. Along the way, we should find out about many of the hidden clauses and language that were inserted by the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, which were designed to benefit only them.

Meanwhile, the Republicans will seek to repeal the bill and return us to the failing system we already had. In the end, the people can't win.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, bad intentions, special interests and politicians.

Enjoy the ride, America.

1 comment:

  1. Giancarlo Annitto10:48 PM

    WOW, this article is AMAZING, the person that wrote this is a Genius.