The Trouble with U.S. Health Care, and a Possible Solution

by Jen Matteis

The United States has the best health care system in the world, right?

“People who are well-informed know that is absolutely not true,” said Betty Johnson of Corvallis, co-founder of Mid-Valley Health Care Advocates and Health Care for All Oregon. “There have been numerous studies showing we are at the bottom of the list or almost at the bottom of the list.”

The truth is, we pay more for health care than anywhere else, and yet have poor standards of care compared to the rest of the developed world.

“We would be able to expand really good coverage to everybody in the country with the money we’re now spending,” Johnson said.

According to the International Federation of Health Plans, we pay more for every single procedure compared to Spain, France, Germany, Argentina, Chile, Canada, India and Switzerland. There was only one exception: it costs more to have cataract surgery in Switzerland. And our costs are expected to rise.

One would think this would pay off in excellent care, but that isn’t the case. Compared to the previously mentioned countries, we rank last in terms of deaths before age 75 that could have been prevented by timely access to health care. We also rank last in infant mortality. According to the Commonwealth Fund, our infant mortality rate is 1 in 233, compared to 1 in 909 in Japan; 1 in 455 in France; 1 in 385 in Lithuania; and 1 in 345 in Cuba.

Johnson is one of many in Oregon trying to reform this broken system. Their solution: the single-payer health care system, which was implemented last year in Vermont. Every resident of Vermont will have health care under a single system managed by the state, and it’s estimated to cost 25 percent less than the former system. The process began with a grassroots movement for health care as a human right, not a privilege.

Johnson and others are trying to bring the single-payer system to Oregon. “Our ultimate goal is a system that would be available to everybody– and I do mean everybody, whether they’re legal residents or not,” she said.

The goals of Health Care For All Oregon include a focus on primary care and prevention; in other words, trying to get people to lead healthier lives. Another of the group’s main points is affordability. We all know someone–or have been that someone–who was uninsured and unable to pay for a medical procedure. During the first half of 2011, an estimated one in five people were in a family having problems paying medical bills, and one in ten were in a family that had medical bills it was unable to pay at all, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The affordability issue is extremely important to people,” said Johnson. “That’s a major reason why people don’t have access to the health care they need; it’s based on whether you have the money to buy expensive health care coverage–you may not get it.”

The single-payer system would be publicly funded by a variety of sources, such as an employers’ payroll tax and a progressive income tax.

Support for the movement is growing. The Corvallis-based Mid-Valley Health Care Advocates has teamed up with more than 30 organizations throughout the state to form Health Care For All Oregon.

“We’ve been making presentations at local service clubs, and we’ve also been engaging people in health parties: smaller groups, 10, 12, 15 people at a time,” said Johnson. “There’s a real hunger for something that really gets at the root of our current health care crisis.”

Canada has a similar system, and it began in a small way; one province implemented the system, and others adopted it when they saw its success.

“Our intent statewide is to really build a strong grassroots movement,” Johnson emphasized. The hope is that Health Care For All Oregon will find enough support to pass a bill when it goes before state legislature. The process may take a few years.

“In Vermont, it took them three years to build the grassroots structure,” Johnson said. “We have a lot in common with them.” She also noted we’re not alone; twenty other states are moving toward a universal system. “Our ultimate goal would be that this would cover the United States.”

Dr. Arnold Relman and Dr. Marcia Angell, former editors of The New England Journal of Medicine, speak at the rally for Health Care for All Oregon on Saturday, April 28 from noon to 2 p.m. at the Majestic Theatre, 115 SW 2nd Street, Corvallis. The free event is followed by a reception ($15). For more information, visit www.healthcareforalloregon.org or www.singlepayeroregon.org

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