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The Health Care Debate
David Goldhill, a media and technology executive, recently wrote a superb essay for the September edition of The Atlantic on America’s health care crisis. Following are just a few excerpts that should open up your eyes.
“Almost two years ago, my father was killed by a hospital-borne infection in the intensive-care unit of a well-regarded nonprofit hospital in New York City. Dad had just turned 83, and he had a variety of the ailments common to men of his age. But he was still working on the day he walked into the hospital with pneumonia. Within 36 hours, he had developed sepsis. Over the next five weeks in the ICU, a wave of secondary infections, also acquired in the hospital, overwhelmed his defenses. My dad became a statistic – merely one of the roughly 100,000 Americans whose deaths are caused or influenced by infections picked up in hospitals. One hundred thousand deaths: more than double the number of people killed in car crashes, five times the number killed in homicides, 20 times the total number of our armed forces killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another victim in a building American tragedy.”
Goldhill talks of the efforts of Dr. Peter Pronovost to reduce the fatal hospital-borne infections, a simple checklist of ICU protocols, “But many physicians rejected the checklist as an unnecessary and belittling bureaucratic intrusion, and many hospital executives were reluctant to push it on them.”
“How was it possible that Pronovost needed to beg hospitals to adopt an essentially cost-free idea that saved so many lives? Here’s an industry that loudly protests the high cost of liability insurance and the injustice of our tort system and yet needs extensive lobbying to embrace a simple technique to save up to 100,000 people.”
“Keeping Dad company in the hospital for five weeks had left me befuddled. How can a facility featuring state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment use less-sophisticated information technology than my local sushi bar? How can the ICU stress the importance of sterility when its trash is picked up once daily, and only after flowing onto the floor of a patient’s room? Considering the importance of a patient’s frame of mind to recovery, why are the rooms so cheerless and uncomfortable? In whose interest is the bizarre scheduling of hospital shifts, so that a five-week stay brings an endless string of new personnel assigned to a patient’s care? Why, in other words has this technologically advanced hospital missed out on the revolution in quality control and customer service that has swept all other consumer-facing industries in the past two generations?”
“(Spending) on health care, by families and by the government, is crowding out spending on almost everything else. As a nation, we now spend almost 18 percent of our GDP on health care. In 1966, Medicare and Medicaid made up 1 percent of total government spending; now that figure is 20 percent, and quickly rising. Already, the federal government spends eight times as much on health care as it does on education, 12 times what it spends on food aid to children and families, 30 times what it spends on law enforcement, 78 times what it spends on land management and conservation, 87 times the spending on water supply, and 830 times the spending on energy conservation. Education, public safety, environment, infrastructure – all other public priorities are being slowly devoured by the health-care beast….
“By what mechanism does society determine that an extra, say, $100 billion for health care will make us healthier than even $10 billion for cleaner air or water, or $25 billion for better nutrition, or $5 billion for parks, or $10 billion for recreation, or $50 billion in additional vacation time – or all of those alternatives combined?”
“Let’s say you’re a 22-year-old single employee at my company today, starting out at a $30,000 annual salary. Let’s assume you’ll get married in six years, support two children for 20 years, retire at 65, and die at 80. Now let’s make a crazy assumption: insurance premiums, Medicare taxes and premiums, and out-of-pocket costs will grow no faster than your earnings – say, 3 percent a year. By the end of your working days, your annual salary will be up to $107,000. And over your lifetime, you and your employer together will have paid $1.77 million for your family’s health care. $1.77 million! And that’s only after assuming the taming of costs! In recent years, health-care costs have actually grown 2 to 3 percent faster than the economy. If that continues, your 22-year-old self is looking at an additional $2 million or so in expenses over your lifetime – roughly $4 million in total.
“Would you have guessed these numbers were so large? If not, you have good cause: only a quarter would be paid by you directly (and much of that after retirement). The rest would be spent by others on your behalf, deducted from your earnings before you received your paycheck. And that’s a big reason why our health-care system is so expensive.”
“Ten days after my father’s death, the hospital sent my mother a copy of the bill for his five-week stay: $636,687.75. He was charged $11,590 per night for his ICU room; $7,407 per night for a semiprivate room before he was moved to the ICU; $145,432 for drugs; $41,696 for respiratory services. Even the most casual effort to compare these prices to marginal costs or to the costs of off-the-shelf components demonstrates the absurdity of these numbers, but why should my mother care? Her share of the bill was only $992; the balance, undoubtedly at some huge discount, was paid by Medicare.
“Wasn’t this an extraordinary benefit, a windfall return on American citizenship? Or at least some small relief for a distraught widow?
“Not really. You can feel grateful for the protection currently offered by Medicare (or by private insurance) only if you don’t realize how much you truly spend to fund this system over your lifetime, and if you believe you’re getting good care in return.
“Would our health-care system be so outrageously expensive if each American family directly spent even half of that $1.77 million that it will contribute to health insurance and Medicare over a lifetime, instead of entrusting care to massive government and private intermediaries? Like its predecessors, the Obama administration treats additional government funding as a solution to unaffordable health care, rather than its cause. The current reform will likely expand our government’s already massive role in health-care decision-making – all just to continue the illusion that someone else is paying for our care.”