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U.S. Healthcare Reform

I’ve been bemused by the debate on healthcare reform taking place in the U.S. right now. I used to thing that the single topic that people talk the most nonsense about is sport. You know, my sport is better than your sport, my team is better than your team etc. All good fun, but usually nonsense. And then I’ve watched pundits on TV and heard ordinary Americans talk about healthcare reform and wow….its got the sports conversations beaten for absolute gibberish.

So despite a reluctance to get involved because I recognize it’s an extremely complicated issue, I now feel compelled to say a few words. Part of it is because unlike most of the people expressing an opinion, I’ve worked and been a patient in the healthcare system in country with “socialized medicine” (UK) and I also currently work and am sometimes a patient in the United States healthcare system.

So lets start off with a few basics. The United States has some of the most highly trained healthcare staff and by far and away the best healthcare technology in the world. Just to give an example, there are more scanners (MRI, PET, SPECT etc) within a 15 mile radius of my office in central New Jersey than in the whole of Scotland (population about 5 million). And the United States spends far more on healthcare than any other country in the world. But despite that vast wealth of resources that befits the worlds greatest economic power, the United States falls way down the league table on basic objective measures of health outcomes, and similarly down the league on patient satisfaction with healthcare. There are really very few people, (who have looked further than the end of their own nose into this issue) who don’t acknowledge there’s a very serious problem.

For many in the United States, the problem is not so apparent. So if, like me, you and your immediate family are fortunate enough to be relatively healthy, and to be covered by a relatively good employment-based health insurance package, then it may seem OK. It’s when you get very sick, or are unfortunate enough to lose your job, that some of the basic problems with the U.S. system become more apparent. It’s when you get sick that you may find that your policy doesn’t cover the kind of treatment you need, or has a high deductible (amount you have to pay before the insurance takes over). And its when you lose your job and have to start paying out of pocket for health insurance that you realize it is extremely expensive. And of course if you have a gap in coverage and get sick then the new insurer may refuse to cover your “pre-existing condition”.

To me, the single time in your life when you don’t want added financial stress is when you are sick. But many aspects of the U.S. system direct coverage and services to those who need it least (healthy, young ,well insured employees) and become a nightmare for those who need good healthcare most (aging, sick unemployed people). Now when you talk to people in countries like Britain about this, they are generally appalled and quickly see the problem. But one of the things that has surprised me most about the debate in the United States is that a significant proportion of people here seem to really believe that the old “survival of the fittest” philosophy is appropriate here. The attitude seems to be something like: “If someone gets sick and didn’t have the fore-thought to get adequate health insurance to cover the treatment, then that was their own fault. Why should I work my ass off to look after my family and their healthcare needs for some lazy unemployed person to get healthcare for free?”

So somewhere deep in the psyche of many Americans there is a basic belief that healthcare (insurance) is just like auto insurance….something we are all individually responsible for, and if we cant afford it, that’s tough. Many do not believe that healthcare access for all is a basic requirement of a civilized society (like roads and schools).

So President Obama and others who are currently trying to change the U.S. healthcare system have a tough task ahead. It is currently being made much tougher by some bizarre reporting on this topic by the right wing media (Fox etc). We here weird stories about “death panels” of government beaurocrats who will decide which sick people should have the plug pulled on their healthcare under government healthcare. We hear weird stories that in countries with socialized medicine it’s the government, not the doctor who decides on what treatment is provided. Well I can tell you that I never saw “Big Brother” interfering in doctors’ clinical practice until I came to the United States. In this country it is beaurocrats working for health insurance companies, generally with no medical qualifications, who deny coverage for appropriate medical treatment hundreds of thousands of times a day. Often coverage is not denied on clinical grounds, but rather for a whole series of “technical” reasons (wrong diagnostic code, doctor not part of that health insurance plan, pre-existing condition, patient already used annual entitlement for that type of care, patient had that treatment already for longer than policy will pay, treatment carried out at a non-approved facility [go to one 30 miles away], patient hasn’t completed the 6-monthly confirmation of details form, health insurance company doesn’t cover that type of illness/service etc etc). But the underlying strategy is to make it so difficult to get a treatment covered and paid for, that fewer people will go for treatment, and fewer doctors will provide certain procedures because it is so much hassle for them to get paid for it. So the insurance companies hire more people to try to find ways to deny coverage and payments, and doctors have to employ billing specialists to figure out how they can get paid for providing treatment. And the result is an extremely inefficient beaurocratic mess.

Surely a country like the United States can do much better than this?

Now you might be wondering what any of this has to do with smoking? Well one link is that many health insurance policies in the United States do not cover a range of interventions they call “preventive” or “wellness enhancing” interventions. Frequently that means that patients cannot get tobacco dependence treatment (medicines or counseling) covered and so they don’t get the treatment. This is despite the fact that such treatment is one of the most cost-effective clinical interventions available. So an important part of the new proposals for healthcare reform is an increased emphasis on preventive healthcare. This is certainly a step in the right dirction.
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About the Author

MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.