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Another Voice: High-priced U.S. medical care is hazardous to our health

By W.T. “Bill” McKibben

Any realistic review of health care in America quickly exposes failure at every turn. We are sicker than any other developed nation on the planet. Life expectancy, infant mortality, chronic disease, obesity, if it’s bad, we lead the world.

It's not for lack of resources; we spend more per patient than other developed nations. And we use up more of our gross domestic product than other nations by far.

We even sink more public funding into health care ($4,197 per capita) than other nations except Norway and the Netherlands, and we get less. Every single one of those countries gets way more for their tax buck: single-payer, universal public coverage. More important, they get better care and better outcomes.

In the U.S., about 34 percent of us were covered by public programs in 2013, including Medicare and Medicaid. In comparison, everyone in the United Kingdom is covered by their public system at $2,802 per capita with far superior outcomes. Public spending on health care would be greater than $4,197 in the U.S if you included the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance (about $250 billion a year).

Our greed-driven, treatment-based system is not only ineffective, it’s a killer. Over-treatment and over-medication kill thousands of Americans every year and harm thousands more. Just compare our medication levels with other nations, especially the United Kingdom. Big Pharma is really getting its money’s worth out of its lobbyists and shameful advertising.

And don’t let them give you their “cost to develop new drugs” song and dance. First off, an examination of their costs shows that rather than the $1.2 billion number they flaunt as the cost of a new drug, it’s more like $100 million. Worse, they are not focused on developing new drugs. Almost all their efforts are directed to reformulating existing drugs approaching patent expirations. Then there are the Jolly-Roger-flying outfits that just buy up small one drug and push the cost of it through the stratosphere.

To illustrate the ends Big Pharma resorts to, years ago its lobbyists pushed a bill through the Congress that prevents Medicare from negotiating prices on drugs. So this huge market pays retail. Meanwhile, the same members of Congress bemoan the lower prices Canadians have negotiated for drugs. By the way, Medicare buys a lot more drugs in total than the Canadians. Guess who benefits? The docs and Big Pharma. American patients? Just the opposite – they pay through the nose, often for drugs they don’t need.

As long as the medical community’s income is based on how much treatment, and how many drugs and tests they order, Americans are trapped in this destructive and unscrupulous system. The way out is simple, single-payer, prevention-based universal coverage. Tragically, we are already paying for it. It’s time we got our money’s worth.

W.T. “Bill” McKibben, a Buffalo-based author, was a Medicare B and health care insurance consultant for more than 25 years.

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