(Note: I originally posted this on Medium)
In the United States, healthcare has been one of the biggest political battles of the decade. As a healthcare worker myself, it’s an issue that strikes close to home. My years of experience caring for people with dementia, traumatic brain injuries, tetraplegia, cancer, and more has given me a firsthand look into what our healthcare system is like at the ground level, and it’s a different world from the vague concepts that politicians volley back and forth at each other.
Healthcare shouldn’t be a messy political fight to begin with: it’s an issue of basic human rights. And what all too often gets lost in these scuffles are the people most in need.
Our police forces, fire departments, libraries, and even our military are all socialist institutions. Few people would argue for the idea of a private fire department that refuses to rescue people from their home because the fire itself is a “pre-existing condition.” So why would we ever frame the issue of healthcare differently, when it’s exactly the same thing?
I’ve watched patients die from preventable conditions because they couldn’t afford treatment. In nursing homes, sick people are warehoused into less-than-adequate conditions, with families forced to pay insane yearly costs of $90,000 a year to put their loved one in a shared room where they and the 30+ other patients on their unit will be taken care of by only two aides. Because of money issues, people lose limbs that they shouldn’t need to lose. Patients decline when they shouldn’t have to. An increasing number of people don’t go to the doctor, even when they develop terrifying symptoms such as mysterious lumps in their throat, because they just can’t afford it.
Something has to change. Looking at other countries, the practical solution is universal healthcare — preferably a single-payer system.
Though some politicians might argue differently, universal healthcare isn’t a radical idea. The majority of Americans actually support the concept. In the rest of the developed world it isn’t even an argument, it’s a given. Of the 25 wealthiest nations in the world, the United States is the only one that doesn’t have it. The majority of these countries use single-payer. Even countries like the Netherlands — with its “managed chaos” form of healthcare — are still universal.
The United States has the highest health expenditure per capita of any country. With all that money being spent, you’d figure that we’re all super-healthy — but not really.
In the latest survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which assessed 13 developed nations including Norway, Australia, and the U.K., the USA had the lowest life expectancy, the highest rate of infant mortality, and scarily high rates of heart disease and amputation as a result of diabetes. Of all the developed countries in the world, the United States possesses the dubious distinction of having both the most expensive healthcare system in the world — and the least effective.
In the past year, taxpayers in the United States picked up 65% of this country’s total healthcare coverage, about $2.1 trillion in taxes. Keep in mind, this is what we’re already paying in taxes. On top of that, let’s take into account how much money each of us also spends on our private healthcare plans every month, combined with how much we have to pay on personal procedures that aren’t totally covered by that plan.
But then Canada, which has a single-payer system, pays almost the same amount in tax funded dollars: 70.7%. In other words, the United States already pays the same amount of money that could fund universal healthcare — we just aren’t getting any the benefits. Although Canada’s system certainly has flaws, Canadians still overwhelmingly approve of universal healthcare as a whole, with 94% calling it a source of collective pride.
That’s not all: if we want to get serious about cutting the deficit and don’t want to rip Medicare to shreds, many studies by economists such as Dean Baker have shown how a single-payer healthcare plan would actually be a great solution.
Some point to the idea of “free market healthcare” as an alternative option, but in practice this would price out the poor. This is a very real issue, because if a working class person with a relatively low income — say, a mechanic — comes down with brain cancer, the cost of treatment would greatly exceed their income level, leaving that person the option of either begging their friends for tens of thousands of dollars, or accepting that they have to die without receiving treatment.
In a free market healthcare system, unregulated health insurance companies would be financially rewarded for not accepting sick customers, and punished if they did accept them. Healthcare companies reap profits every month when their customers are healthy, and lose money when their customers are sick. This means that a healthcare company that’s looking to profit will refuse applications from customers who are already sick — in other words, patients with “pre-existing conditions” — exactly the people who need healthcare the most.
Let’s not forget the pharmaceutical industry, which is a whole other can of worms. The United States is the only developed country in the world that allows drug companies to set their own prices, which is why last year Turing Pharmaceuticals was able to jack up the price of Daraprim from $13.50 a tablet to $750. Unlike other countries, where prices are set as part of a bureaucratic process, the US system opens the door for these companies to step in and maximize profits, as if a lifesaving drug was comparable to a pair of jeans.
But healthcare shouldn’t be about profit. It deserves the same priority in our society that we give to the police, the military, and the fire department, because healthcare isn’t like buying a flat screen TV: people don’t want healthcare services for their enjoyment, they need them, and a person should not be thrown into bankruptcy because on one unlucky day an icicle dropped onto them from a rooftop.
Ideally, the entire purpose of government in the type of democratic society that we have today is to serve the needs of the people. As a healthcare worker, I can’t possibly see how this principle doesn’t apply to health. I’ve been there when people died, seen people suffer when they shouldn’t have had to, all while corporations mark down record profits from the suffering of human beings. So yes, I do believe that “healthcare is a right, not a privilege,” and I’m not alone. The evidence shows that the various universal healthcare systems that exist in every other developed country are both less expensive and more effective than what we have in the United States.
Again, this shouldn’t be a political battle. It’s an issue of basic human rights. So when will we get with the program? Hopefully soon.