President Barack Obama has vowed to reform the country's costly health care
system, which he has called the biggest threat to the nation's economy.
In a public health clinic in Washington,
D.C., Delcy Suarez flexes her elbow, showing a nurse how she hurt her arm in a
Suarez works as a nanny, a job that
pays just enough for food and rent, but does not provide health insurance. She
often lives in pain because she cannot afford a doctor.
"Like this time I fell in the
street. All my body was on top of my arm,” said 58-year-old Suarez. “I didn't
have insurance. I spent the whole night thinking, where am I going to go?
Crying, and I didn't know."
A friend finally persuaded her to go to
the hospital emergency room, where an X-ray revealed a fractured arm. The cost
of the brief visit? More than a thousand dollars. There is no way Suarez can
pay the bill.
Under federal law, hospitals have to
treat all emergency cases regardless of insurance. But they cannot afford to
give free care. So they pass the cost of treating patients like Suarez on to
those who can pay, thus raising overall health care fees.
Ron Pollack, the executive director of
the health care advocacy group Families USA, said that is a major reason why
the U.S. health system is so expensive.
"There is a hidden cost shift so
that the person or the family that has health insurance and needs care winds up
paying more money for the services that are provided," Pollack said.
As a result, the insurance premiums, or
fees, rise. At a recent national health
care forum in Washington, President Barack Obama raised the alarm about these
He noted that in the last eight years,
premiums have grown four times faster than wages, and an additional nine
million Americans have joined the ranks of the uninsured.
“The cost of health care now causes a
bankruptcy in America every 30 seconds.
By the end of the year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose
their homes," the president warned.
World's most expensive health care
The U.S. has the highest health care
costs in the world, yet it is the only Western country that does not provide
medical coverage to all of its residents.
Across the United States more than $2.5
trillion will be spent on health care this year, about 17.6 percent of the
Gross Domestic Product. That is $8,160 per U.S. resident.
Pollack said a lot of that does not
even go toward care.
"There are very high
administrative-related costs associated with our health insurance system to pay
for agents' fees, advertising and marketing, and profits," he said.
The rising price of medical technology
and prescription drugs also are factors. Pollack said inefficient treatments
further add to the costs.
"A lot of the care that people get
actually provides them with little improvement in their health care, and some
actually even harms their health care," Pollack said.
Physicians in the U.S. are paid for
each service they provide. The more procedures or tests they conduct, the more
they are paid.
Sara Collins, an economist and
assistant vice president of the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that
supports research in health issues, said the U.S. could save money if it
changed this system.
"There's really no consideration
about the quality of those services provided, or an overall look at what
happens to people when they're in the hospital and paying on the basis of
outcomes," Collins said.
President Obama has made slashing
health costs a major part of his economic policy. He has proposed a $630
billion reserve fund over the next decade to start reforming the system.
Experts agree the overhaul will probably cost closer to $1 trillion.
Collins says Mr. Obama's plan to invest
in electronic health records to prevent duplicative care will help bridge the
"Accelerating the spread and use
of health information technology could save up to about $261 billion over a 10
year period," she said.
The government also has renewed and
expanded a program to insure 11 million children, an investment in preventive
care that should help families avoid more costly emergency room visits.
There is a general consensus in
Washington that the health system is broken, but agreeing on the cure will be
difficult. Despite that, leaders from Mr. Obama's Democratic Party hope to
rally enough support to pass a reform bill in the next few months.