Health reform now a matter of life and death

Everyone’s been talking about how our nation’s health care system is sick: 47 million Americans are uninsured, $480 billion is wasted each year when U.S. spending is compared to other countries and health care costs are expected to double in the next 10 years.

But now it’s time to get personal; now it’s time to talk about how our health care system may be making you sick.

I’m talking about you — the Yalie seated in the upper-middle class. You may think you’re privileged enough to be exempt from today’s problems of health care, but guess again. A crippling health care system means poor quality of care for everyone — even you.

You’ve probably heard the statistic that U.S. life expectancy ranks below Cuba and Chile, and you may have even read the statistic that a lack of health insurance kills 18,000 Americans each year, but new studies are beginning to suggest that even wealthy Americans are sicker than they should be, particularly with debilitating and costly chronic diseases. Unlike Rudy Giuliani’s false statistics on prostate cancer, these findings aren’t too promising.

Last year, for example, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that for middle-aged white males, the prevalence of diabetes, heart disease and cancer among the highest socioeconomic status in the United States is worse than the rates in the lowest socioeconomic status in the United Kingdom, even though high-income Americans smoke less, drink less and weigh about the same as low-income Brits.

In my own senior thesis research, I’ve found that the hospitalization rate for diabetes in Manhattan’s richest neighborhoods is about one-and-a-half times that of London’s and Paris’s poorest neighborhoods. Even after taking into account the different numbers of people with diabetes, New Yorkers as a whole are nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized for diabetic complications as residents of London.

Higher rates of disease and complications result in more deaths. The death rate for white Americans age 55-64 is 18 percent higher than that of the same population in England. After 65, the differences in mortality level off, perhaps because of America’s long-standing “socialized medicine” known as Medicare.

As the movement for national health reform gains momentum, some groups are starting to recognize that our dysfunctional health care system has become a true public health threat. The American Cancer Society, for example, has recently decided to devote its entire advertising budget to health reform because, as they state on their Web site, “inadequate access to timely, quality health care is one of the greatest barriers to winning the war on cancer.”

The problem in the United States isn’t that we don’t have good doctors — it’s that we don’t have a good system. Although American universities like Yale may be a hotbed for cutting-edge research, the sad reality is that many people with health insurance don’t have access to it. The United States may have some of the shortest wait times for non-emergency medical procedures, but according to a recent study from the Commonwealth Fund, one in four Americans has to wait at least a week for an appointment when he or she needs medical attention, which is more than one-and-a-half times the rate in the U.K.

These figures don’t even take into account the unnecessary bureaucracy in the U.S. Not only does administration in America cost more than twice as much per person as the U.K., but it also prevents doctors from providing high-quality care and leaves each patient with a pile of bills and paperwork when they leave the hospital.

In Connecticut, the most egregious example of poor access is lower-income families who are enrolled in Medicaid. A study by Connecticut Medicaid Managed Care companies showed that only one in four Medicaid patients could schedule an appointment with an approved provider. The situation is so bad that last week, Governor Rell was forced to suspend the state’s contract with these providers.

Unfortunately, in the presidential campaign, candidates have only been talking about the access to health insurance, not to health care. While covering the nation’s 47 million uninsured should be a national priority, these new plans won’t be worth the paper they’re printed on if we can’t fix the fundamental flaws in our health system that deny people the care they need. Our health depends on it.

There is no reason why citizens of the United States of America should continue to accept health care that is mediocre compared to the rest of the developed world. It’s time that our political leaders take a stand to create a health care system that actually improves health for you, me and every American.

Robert Nelb is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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