The healthcare debate: America must learn to learn from others

Ahead of Obama’s address on healthcare reform to a joint session on Congress later today, some thoughts from Salvatore Babones, editor of Social inequality and public health.

In last year’s final US presidential debate, Republican candidate John McCain tried to make political hay by accusing Barack Obama of planning to implement British or Canadian style healthcare in America. Candidate Obama immediately jumped in to counter the accusation: no one wanted British or Canadian ‘socialism’ in the United States, least of all him. True to his word, as president Obama has sought neither to nationalize healthcare nor to implement a single-payer model. He has pulled back even from his initial support for a ‘government option’ that people could opt into by paying premiums. Whatever the outcome of today’s US healthcare debate, healthcare in America will remain resolutely private.

If only we Americans were so lucky as to have a British or Canadian model of healthcare! Or, as I do (even as an expat), an Australian model. Life expectancy at birth in the UK is over 79 years; in Canada over 81 years. In the US it’s 77.8 years. Many (white) Americans believe that US figures compare poorly because of low health among African-Americans. It is certainly disingenuous (bordering on racist) to blame a society’s poor showing on the very people who are most victimized by that society, but… even among whites US life expectancy is just 78.3 years. Clearly America is missing something here. Pig-headed nationalism doesn’t change the fact that Americans are giving up 1-3 years of life on average.

What’s more, these figures have to be understood in context of the fact that American hospitals employ the most extreme measures to prolong life at any cost when people near their deaths. That implies that active US life expectancy – the number of years that Americans live before going into the hospital for months of terminal decline – is even shorter. The US spends more money to achieve worse health than any other high-income country, despite the fact that America has the natural advantage of being the richest country in the world. We Americans must get over the idea that everything is best in America and start to learn lessons from the rest of the world. The world has moved past us: every other high-income country now provides some form of universal healthcare coverage to all its citizens. It’s time for America to get with the program.

Salvatore Babones, Lecturer in Sociology and Social Polity at The University of Sydney.

More information on Social inequality and public health, edited by Salvatore Babones.

Visit The Policy Press website at http://www.policypress.co.uk

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