Health insurance in America, or lack thereof
THE MORAL-HAZARD MYTH
The bad idea behind our failed health-care system.
by MALCOLM GLADWELL
- “Almost every time we asked interviewees [people without health insurance] what their first priority would be if the president established universal health coverage tomorrow,” Sered and Fernandopulle write, “the immediate answer was ‘my teeth.’ ”
- The leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States is unpaid medical bills....Children without health insurance are less likely to receive medical attention for serious injuries, for recurrent ear infections, or for asthma. Lung-cancer patients without insurance are less likely to receive surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation treatment. Heart-attack victims without health insurance are less likely to receive angioplasty. People with pneumonia who don’t have health insurance are less likely to receive X rays or consultations. The death rate in any given year for someone without health insurance is twenty-five per cent higher than for someone with insurance.
- Americans spend $5,267 per capita on health care every year, almost two and half times the industrialized world’s median of $2,193; the extra spending comes to hundreds of billions of dollars a year....Americans have fewer doctors per capita than most Western countries. We go to the doctor less than people in other Western countries. We get admitted to the hospital less frequently than people in other Western countries. We are less satisfied with our health care than our counterparts in other countries. American life expectancy is lower than the Western average. Childhood-immunization rates in the United States are lower than average. Infant-mortality rates are in the nineteenth percentile of industrialized nations....Nor is our system more efficient. The United States spends more than a thousand dollars per capita per year—or close to four hundred billion dollars—on health-care-related paperwork and administration, whereas Canada, for example, spends only about three hundred dollars per capita. And, of course, every other country in the industrialized world insures all its citizens; despite those extra hundreds of billions of dollars we spend each year, we leave forty-five million people without any insurance.
- At the center of the Bush Administration’s plan to address the health-insurance mess are Health Savings Accounts, and Health Savings Accounts are exactly what you would come up with if you were concerned, above all else, with minimizing moral hazard. The logic behind them was laid out in the 2004 Economic Report of the President....The report continues, “Researchers believe that as many as one-quarter of those without health insurance had coverage available through an employer but declined the coverage. . . . Still others may remain uninsured because they are young and healthy and do not see the need for insurance.” In other words, those with health insurance are overinsured and their behavior is distorted by moral hazard. Those without health insurance use their own money to make decisions about insurance based on an assessment of their needs. The insured are wasteful. The uninsured are prudent. So what’s the solution? Make the insured a little bit more like the uninsured.
- The country described in the President’s report is a very different place from the country described in “Uninsured in America.” Sered and Fernandopulle look at the billions we spend on medical care and wonder why Americans have so little insurance. The President’s report considers the same situation and worries that we have too much. Sered and Fernandopulle see the lack of insurance as a problem of poverty; a third of the uninsured, after all, have incomes below the federal poverty line. In the section on the uninsured in the President’s report, the word “poverty” is never used. In the Administration’s view, people are offered insurance but “decline the coverage” as “a matter of choice.”
- The issue about what to do with the health-care system is sometimes presented as a technical argument about the merits of one kind of coverage over another or as an ideological argument about socialized versus private medicine. It is, instead, about a few very simple questions. Do you think that this kind of redistribution of risk is a good idea? Do you think that people whose genes predispose them to depression or cancer, or whose poverty complicates asthma or diabetes, or who get hit by a drunk driver, or who have to keep their mouths closed because their teeth are rotting ought to bear a greater share of the costs of their health care than those of us who are lucky enough to escape such misfortunes? In the rest of the industrialized world, it is assumed that the more equally and widely the burdens of illness are shared, the better off the population as a whole is likely to be. The reason the United States has forty-five million people without coverage is that its health-care policy is in the hands of people who disagree, and who regard health insurance not as the solution but as the problem.
But it's a good question. I don't really know. How does it work everywhere else where it works?