IOM Comparison Finds US Ranks Lowest in Health / Mortality

American men ranked last in life expectancy among the 17 countries in the study, and American women ranked second to last. us_health_intl_perspective_2013_nas.gif

“Something fundamental is going wrong,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, who led the panel. “This is not the product of a particular administration or political party. Something at the core is causing the U.S. to slip behind these other high-income countries. And it’s getting worse.”

The New York Times reports (below) that "Panelists were surprised at just how consistently Americans ended up at the bottom of the rankings. The United States had the second-highest death rate from the most common form of heart disease, the kind that causes heart attacks, and the second-highest death rate from lung disease, a legacy of high smoking rates in past decades. American adults also have the highest diabetes rates".

The 378-page study by a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council is the first to systematically compare death rates and health measures for people of all ages, including American youths. It went further than other studies in documenting the full range of causes of death, from diseases to accidents to violence.

The rate of firearm homicides was 20 times higher in the US than in 23 other countries.

An insightful  analysis by New York Times business reporter, Eduardo Porter, "Health Care And Profits, A Poor Mix" (below) raises the essential issue that lawmakers are loath to address:

"A quarter of a century ago, a belief swept across America that we could reduce the ballooning costs of the government’s health care entitlements just by handing over their management to the private sector. Private companies would have a strong incentive to identify and wipe out wasteful treatment. They could encourage healthy lifestyles among beneficiaries, lowering use of costly care. Competition for government contracts would keep the overall price down.

We now know this didn’t work as advertised." 

Porter cites real life examples–including unnecessary high dose prescribing practices–that inflate costs: 

"profit-maximizing tactics point to a troubling conflict of interest that goes beyond the private delivery of health care. They raise a broader, more important question: How much should we rely on the private sector to satisfy broad social needs?"

 "Our track record suggests that handing over responsibility for social goals to private enterprise is providing us with social goods of lower quality, distributed more inequitably and at a higher cost than if government delivered or paid for them directly."

"From the high administrative costs incurred by health insurers to screen out sick patients to the array of expensive treatments prescribed by doctors who earn more money for every treatment they provide, our private health care industry provides perhaps the clearest illustration of how the profit motive can send incentives astray.

"By many objective measures, the mostly private American system delivers worse value for money than every other in the developed world."

 See also, AHRP’s 5-part series, America’s Healthcare Crisis

Vera Sharav

THE NEW YORK TIMES
January 9, 2013us_life_expectancy_lowest.jpg

For Americans Under 50, Stark Findings on Health

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

Younger Americans die earlier and live in poorer health than their counterparts in other developed countries, with far higher rates of death from guns, car accidents and drug addiction, according to a new analysis of health and longevity in the United States.

Researchers have known for some time that the United States fares poorly in comparison with other rich countries, a trend established in the 1980s. But most studies have focused on older ages, when the majority of people die.

The findings were stark. Deaths before age 50 accounted for about two-thirds of the difference in life expectancy between males in the United States and their counterparts in 16 other developed countries, and about one-third of the difference for females. The countries in the analysis included Canada, Japan, Australia, France, Germany and Spain.

The 378-page study by a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council is the first to systematically compare death rates and health measures for people of all ages, including American youths. It went further than other studies in documenting the full range of causes of death, from diseases to accidents to violence. It was based on a broad review of mortality and health studies and statistics.

The panel called the pattern of higher rates of disease and shorter lives “the U.S. health disadvantage,” and said it was responsible for dragging the country to the bottom in terms of life expectancy over the past 30 years. American men ranked last in life expectancy among the 17 countries in the study, and American women ranked second to last.

“Something fundamental is going wrong,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, who led the panel. “This is not the product of a particular administration or political party. Something at the core is causing the U.S. to slip behind these other high-income countries. And it’s getting worse.”

Car accidents, gun violence and drug overdoses were major contributors to years of life lost by Americans before age 50.

The rate of firearm homicides was 20 times higher in the United States than in the other countries, according to the report, which cited a 2011 study of 23 countries. And though suicide rates were lower in the United States, firearm suicide rates were six times higher.

Sixty-nine percent of all American homicide deaths in 2007 involved firearms, compared with an average of 26 percent in other countries, the study said. “The bottom line is that we are not preventing damaging health behaviors,” said Samuel Preston, a demographer and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who was on the panel. “You can blame that on public health officials, or on the health care system. No one understands where responsibility lies.”

Panelists were surprised at just how consistently Americans ended up at the bottom of the rankings. The United States had the second-highest death rate from the most common form of heart disease, the kind that causes heart attacks, and the second-highest death rate from lung disease, a legacy of high smoking rates in past decades. American adults also have the highest diabetes rates.

Youths fared no better. The United States has the highest infant mortality rate among these countries, and its young people have the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and deaths from car crashes. Americans lose more years of life before age 50 to alcohol and drug abuse than people in any of the other countries.

Americans also had the lowest probability over all of surviving to the age of 50. The report’s second chapter details health indicators for youths where the United States ranks near or at the bottom. There are so many that the list takes up four pages. Chronic diseases, including heart disease, also played a role for people under 50.

“We expected to see some bad news and some good news,” Dr. Woolf said. “But the U.S. ranked near and at the bottom in almost every heath indicator. That stunned us.”

There were bright spots. Death rates from cancers that can be detected with tests, like breast cancer, were lower in the United States. Adults had better control over their cholesterol and high blood pressure. And the very oldest Americans — above 75 — tended to outlive their counterparts.

The panel sought to explain the poor performance. It noted the United States has a highly fragmented health care system, with limited primary care resources and a large uninsured population. It has the highest rates of poverty among the countries studied.

Education also played a role. Americans who have not graduated from high school die from diabetes at three times the rate of those with some college, Dr. Woolf said. In the other countries, more generous social safety nets buffer families from the health consequences of poverty, the report said.

Still, even the people most likely to be healthy, like college-educated Americans and those with high incomes, fare worse on many health indicators.

The report also explored less conventional explanations. Could cultural factors like individualism and dislike of government interference play a role? Americans are less likely to wear seat belts and more likely to ride motorcycles without helmets.    

The United States is a bigger, more heterogeneous society with greater levels of economic inequality, and comparing its health outcomes to those in countries like Sweden or France may seem lopsided. But the panelists point out that this country spends more on health care than any other in the survey. And as recently as the 1950s, Americans scored better in life expectancy and disease than many of the other countries in the current study.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

   

January 8, 2013

Health Care and Profits, a Poor Mix

By

Thirty years ago, Bonnie Svarstad and Chester Bond of the School of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered an interesting pattern in the use of sedatives at nursing homes in the south of the state.

Patients entering church-affiliated nonprofit homes were prescribed drugs roughly as often as those entering profit-making “proprietary” institutions. But patients in proprietary homes received, on average, more than four times the dose of patients at nonprofits.

Writing about his colleagues’ research in his 1988 book “The Nonprofit Economy,” the economist Burton Weisbrod provided a straightforward explanation: “differences in the pursuit of profit.” Sedatives are cheap, Mr. Weisbrod noted. “Less expensive than, say, giving special attention to more active patients who need to be kept busy.”

This behavior was hardly surprising. Hospitals run for profit are also less likely than nonprofit and government-run institutions to offer services like home health care and psychiatric emergency care, which are not as profitable as open-heart surgery.

A shareholder might even applaud the creativity with which profit-seeking institutions go about seeking profit. But the consequences of this pursuit might not be so great for other stakeholders in the system — patients, for instance. One study found that patients’ mortality rates spiked when nonprofit hospitals switched to become profit-making, and their staff levels declined.

These profit-maximizing tactics point to a troubling conflict of interest that goes beyond the private delivery of health care. They raise a broader, more important question: How much should we rely on the private sector to satisfy broad social needs?

From health to pensions to education, the United States relies on private enterprise more than pretty much every other advanced, industrial nation to provide essential social services. The government pays Medicare Advantage plans to deliver health care to aging Americans. It provides a tax break to encourage employers to cover workers under 65.

Businesses devote almost 6 percent of the nation’s economic output to pay for health insurance for their employees. This amounts to nine times similar private spending on health benefits across the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, on average. Private plans cover more than a third of pension benefits. The average for 30 countries in the O.E.C.D. is just over one-fifth.

We let the private sector handle tasks other countries would never dream of moving outside the government’s purview. Consider bail bondsmen and their rugged sidekicks, the bounty hunters.

American TV audiences may reminisce fondly about Lee Majors in “The Fall Guy” chasing bad guys in a souped-up GMC truck — a cheap way to get felons to court. People in most other nations see them as an undue commercial intrusion into the criminal justice system that discriminates against the poor.

Our reliance on private enterprise to provide the most essential services stems, in part, from a more narrow understanding of our collective responsibility to provide social goods. Private American health care has stood out for decades among industrial nations, where public universal coverage has long been considered a right of citizenship. But our faith in private solutions also draws on an ingrained belief that big government serves too many disparate objectives and must cater to too many conflicting interests to deliver services fairly and effectively.

Our trust appears undeserved, however. Our track record suggests that handing over responsibility for social goals to private enterprise is providing us with social goods of lower quality, distributed more inequitably and at a higher cost than if government delivered or paid for them directly.

The government’s most expensive housing support program — it will cost about $140 billion this year — is a tax break for individuals to buy homes on the private market.

According to the Tax Policy Center, this break will benefit only 20 percent of mostly well-to-do taxpayers, and most economists agree that it does nothing to further its purported goal of increasing homeownership. Tax breaks for private pensions also mostly benefit the wealthy. And 401(k) plans are riskier and costlier to administer than Social Security.

From the high administrative costs incurred by health insurers to screen out sick patients to the array of expensive treatments prescribed by doctors who earn more money for every treatment they provide, our private health care industry provides perhaps the clearest illustration of how the profit motive can send incentives astray.

By many objective measures, the mostly private American system delivers worse value for money than every other in the developed world. We spend nearly 18 percent of the nation’s economic output on health care and still manage to leave tens of millions of Americans without adequate access to care.

Britain gets universal coverage for 10 percent of gross domestic product. Germany and France for 12 percent. What’s more, our free market for health services produces no better health than the public health care systems in other advanced nations. On some measuresinfant mortality, for instance — it does much worse.

In a way, private delivery of health care misleads Americans about the financial burdens they must bear to lead an adequate existence. If they were to consider the additional private spending on health care as a form of tax — an indispensable cost to live a healthy life — the nation’s tax bill would rise to about 31 percent from 25 percent of the nation’s G.D.P. — much closer to the 34 percent average across the O.E.C.D.

A quarter of a century ago, a belief swept across America that we could reduce the ballooning costs of the government’s health care entitlements just by handing over their management to the private sector. Private companies would have a strong incentive to identify and wipe out wasteful treatment. They could encourage healthy lifestyles among beneficiaries, lowering use of costly care. Competition for government contracts would keep the overall price down.

We now know this didn’t work as advertised. Competition wasn’t as robust as hoped. Health maintenance organizations didn’t keep costs in check, and they spent heavily on administration and screening to enroll only the healthiest, most profitable beneficiaries.

One study of Medicare spending found that the program saved no money by relying on H.M.O.’s. Another found that moving Medicaid recipients into H.M.O.’s increased the average cost per beneficiary by 12 percent with no improvement in the quality of care for the poor. Two years ago, President Obama’s health care law cut almost $150 billion from Medicare simply by reducing payments to private plans that provide similar care to plain vanilla Medicare at a higher cost.

Today, again, entitlements are at the center of the national debate. Our elected officials are consumed by slashing a budget deficit that is expected to balloon over coming decades. With both Democrats and Republicans unwilling to raise taxes on the middle class, the discussion is quickly boiling down to how deeply entitlements must be cut.

We may want to broaden the debate. The relevant question is how best we can serve our social needs at the lowest possible cost. One answer is that we have a lot of room to do better. Improving the delivery of social services like health care and pensions may be possible without increasing the burden on American families, simply by removing the profit motive from the equation.

E-mail: eporter@nytimes.com;

Twitter: @portereduardo