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US Health Care: When Is a Crisis a Crisis?

A piece we ran this morning examines the current crisis in health care and the political barriers to fixing it. As the story points out, the U.S. spent about 16 percent of its gross domestic product — or $2.1 trillion — on health care in 2006. That raises the question: What do comparable countries spend on the same thing?

The quick answer: Not nearly as much. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which represents 30 developed-world democracies, Switzerland is second behind the U.S., spending 11.5 percent of its GDP on health care in 2004, the last year when comprehensive data are available. (By comparison, the U.S. spent 15.2 percent of GDP in the same year). Japan and the United Kingdom spent about half of what we did in 2004: 8.0 and 8.1 percent of GDP, respectively.

And that would be fine if the health benefits for all that health care spending were tangible. But it’s simply not the case. With half the health care spending of America, for example, Japan’s life expectancy is more than four years longer, according to the OECD. Infant mortality — at 6.8 deaths per 1,000 live births — is higher in the U.S. than in all the other OECD countries except Mexico and Turkey. And among the 26 countries reporting deaths from medical errors, the U.S. has the third-highest rate, behind Austria and Greece.

Also of dubious distinction, Americans die from preventable conditions at rates higher than citizens of all other industrialized nations, according to a 2008 study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. While researchers noted that the reasons for that trend are many, one contributor is the "comparatively poor performance of the U.S. health care system," the Health Affairs journal pointed out at the time.

Seems that sometimes, you don’t get what you pay for.

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