First, let’s get a little historical perspective on American health care. To do that, let’s turn to the American civil war era. In that war, dated tactics and the carnage inflicted by modern weapons of the era combined to cause terrible results. Most of the deaths on both sides of that war were not the result of actual combat but to what happened after a battlefield wound was inflicted. To begin with, evacuation of the wounded moved at a snail’s pace in most instances causing severe delays in treatment of the wounded. Secondly, most wounds were subjected to wound related surgeries and amputations and this often resulted in massive infection. So you might survive a battle wound only to die at the hands of medical care providers whose good intentioned interventions were often quite lethal. High death tolls can also be ascribed to everyday sicknesses and diseases in a time when no antibiotics existed. In total something like 600,000 deaths occurred from all causes, over 2% of the U.S. population at the time!
Let’s skip to the first half of the 20th century for some additional perspective and to bring us up to more modern times. After the civil war there were steady improvements in American medicine in both the understanding and treatment of certain diseases, new surgical techniques and in physician education and training. But for the most part the best that doctors could offer their patients was a “wait and see” approach. Medicine could handle bone fractures and perform risky surgeries and the like (now increasingly practiced in sterile surgical environments) but medicines were not yet available to handle serious illnesses. The majority of deaths remained the result of untreatable conditions such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, scarlet fever and measles and/or related complications. Doctors were increasingly aware of heart and vascular conditions, and cancer but they had almost nothing with which to treat these conditions.
This very basic understanding of American medical history helps us to understand that until quite recently (around the 1950’s) we had virtually no technologies with which to treat serious or even minor ailments. Nothing to treat you with means that visits to the doctor if at all were relegated to emergencies so in that scenario costs were obviously minuscule. A second factor that has become a key driver of today’s health care costs is that medical treatments that were provided were paid for out-of-pocket. There was no health insurance and certainly not health insurance paid by someone else like an employer. Costs were the responsibility of the individual and perhaps a few charities that among other things supported charity hospitals for the poor and destitute.
What does health care insurance have to do with health care costs? Its impact on health care costs is enormous. When health insurance for individuals and families emerged as a means for corporations to escape wage freezes and to attract and retain employees after World War II, almost overnight there was a great pool of money available for health care. Money, as a result of the availability of billions of dollars from health insurance pools, encouraged an innovative America to increase medical research efforts. As more and more Americans became insured not only through private, employer sponsored health insurance but through increased government funding that created Medicare, Medicaid and expanded veteran health care benefits, finding a cure for almost anything has become very lucrative. This is also the primary reason for the vast array of treatments we have available today. I do not wish to convey that this is a bad thing. Think of the tens of millions of lives that have been saved, extended and made more productive as a result. But with a funding source grown to its current magnitude (hundreds of billions of dollars annually) upward pressure on health care costs are inevitable. Doctor’s offer and most of us demand and get access to the latest available health care technology, pharmaceuticals and surgical interventions. So there is more health care to spend our money on and until very recently most of us were insured and the costs were largely covered by a third-party (government, employers). This is the “perfect storm” for higher and higher health care costs and by and large, the storm is intensifying.
At this point, let’s turn to a key question. Is the current trajectory of U.S. health care spending sustainable? Can America maintain its world competitiveness when 16%, heading for 20% of our gross national product is being spent on health care? What are the other industrialized countries spending on health care and is it even close to these numbers? Add politics and an election year and the whole issue gets badly muddled and misrepresented.