The paradox of US healthcare

By Andrew Kennis

The debate over health insurance reform is raging in Washington [GALLO/GETTY]

For nearly two decades, Wendell Potter led a very comfortable life as a public relations health insurance executive.

However, while flying on a corporate jet and being served lunch on gold-rimmed china with gold-plated cutlery, Potter had an epiphany of sorts.

He realised that the reason why millions of Americans were without health insurance or under-insured was because: “Our Wall Street-driven healthcare system has created one of the most inequitable healthcare systems on the planet.”

This June, Potter left his well-paid and secure job at CIGMA, one of the US’s largest health insurance companies, and has spoken out in favour of healthcare reform.

‘Killing thousands’

With almost 50 million people living without any health insurance and another 25 million people under-insured during a recession, the debate about how to reform the US healthcare system has been underway for many months in Washington and is expected to continue through to the end of the year.

Potter become a whistleblower and is now speaking out against industry abuses on national television news shows.

He does not mince words when telling Al Jazeera that if a strong “public option” is not passed by Congress, healthcare executives would be effectively allowed to continue policies that “literally kill thousands of Americans every year, through denied coverage, as a result of relentless pressure coming from Wall Street”.

The public option, currently favoured by the White House, would attempt to insure the uninsured, with the government providing a non-profit, publicly-funded insurance plan.

The public option, however, has not been fully vetted and passed by Congress and Republicans, coupled with a number of Democratic allies, have vowed to prevent it from reaching the desk of Barack Obama, the US president.

Paying more, getting less

About 50 million Americans are without health insurance [GALLO/GETTY]

In the meantime, the US continues to be the country with the highest proportion of uninsured people in the developed world. It also has the distinction of spending a greater portion of its total economic output on healthcare than any other developed country – just over 17 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) last year.

On average, the US spends twice as much as other developed countries on healthcare.

But even though US citizens pay more for healthcare, they get less of it, resulting in a lowly 37th place ranking among healthcare systems in the world, according to a study by the World Health Organization based on quality and fairness.

In terms of the infant mortality rate, a common marker for the overall state of healthcare systems, the US was outranked by all of the following countries according to the CIA’s World Factbook: Sweden (3rd), Japan (4th), France (7th), Norway (10th), Germany (14th), Israel (17th), Denmark (21st), United Kingdom (31st), Canada (35th), Taiwan (39th), Italy (41st) and even a few underdeveloped countries, including Cuba (43rd).

How can this paradox of the US spending the most and getting the least for its healthcare occur in the country with the world’s largest economic output?


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