According to recent Census Bureau data, life expectancy for a baby born in the US in 2004 is 77.9 years. Of the 222 countries that the Census Bureau tracks, there are 41 with longer life expectancies, including Guam, Andorra, Macau, and Singapore.
Something’s wrong here when one of the richest countries in the world, the one that spends the most on health care, is not able to keep up with other countries,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, head of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
In the 1980’s the US ranked 11th on the life expectancy charts, although the Census Bureau did not track as many countries as they do now. But why are the countries that are being added to the list coming in at a higher ranking than the US? Why are we spending so much money on health care – more than the countries with several years of additional life expectancy – and still missing the mark?
There are no big secrets in the reasons that researchers give for the unenviable position the US holds for life expectancy: 15% of the population without health insurance; the highest rates of obesity in the world; racial and social disparities (black Americans have a life expectancy of 73.3 years); and a relatively high infant mortality rate compared with the rest of the industrialized world (even Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate than the US).
As long as health care is a for-profit industry, the issue of a significant uninsured population, along with racial and social disparities in access to health care will continue to drag down the life expectancy in the US. We have a very complicated system of health care, with a hodge podge of thousands of private entities providing care for those who are able to afford and understand the system. As health insurance agents in Colorado, we frequently come across uninsured residents who could qualify for Medicaid or Colorado Health Plan for their children, but are unaware of how to go about enrolling in these plans. Enrollment is not automatic for low income families – there is extensive paperwork to complete, which can be very intimidating.
Some aspects of the not-so-stellar life expectancy are issues of personal responsibility, mainly the obesity disaster we have in the US. This is a matter of people taking responsibility for their own health, and at the end of the day, a government cannot force its people to lose weight. But they can make it easier for people do do so, and provide more external incentives to be healthy.
The infant mortality rate is sharply divided along socio-economic lines, and highlights the problems faced by young mothers living in poverty – again, this is a factor of health care being a for-profit commodity. An impoverished inner-city mother will not receive the same pre-natal care as an affluent suburb dweller. Access to quality medical care is not something that should be tied to how much money a person has, and yet it very much is in the US.
Murray makes a comment that speaks to all those who want to keep the fundamentals of our health care system as they are:
“The starting point is the recognition that the U.S. does not have the best health care system. There are still an awful lot of people who think it does.”
We can still love our country and our freedoms and be able to admit that we could all benefit from taking a look at how things are done in other countries. It’s not unpatriotic to say that another country has a better system than we do. When other countries are spending less money per capita on health care and their citizens are living 4 or 5 years longer than we are, it’s time to stop raving about our own setup and pay more attention to other options. Indeed, if we truly love our country, we should be aiming for number one on those charts, and the only way to do that is to look to the highest ranking country (Andorra, with a life expectancy of 83.5 years) and see what they’re doing that we are not.