My experiences dealing with the health care systems here in the U.S. can be summed up in two words: expensive and complicated.
Although I have always been stringent about taking care of my health, I was diagnosed with an unexpected and debilitating autoimmune disease in early adulthood that has forever changed the way I live and how I look at health care and our systems for managing it.
Whether it is the hours I spend battling with insurance providers on the phone about which aspects of my health care are actually covered and at what rate, or the time going back and forth from speaking to my doctor and then to the pharmacy and then to insurance and then back to the pharmacy and doctor again to make sure everyone is on the same page, dealing with the disjointed health care entities in the U.S. that all play a role in my care feels like a time-consuming nightmare.
The amount of time alone it takes to ensure that those charged with guarding my health and interests (i.e., health insurance companies) are actually doing so, rather than just taking my money and giving little in return, is more than I (or most people) can realistically spend.
Many doctors, pharmacists and insurance representatives do as much as they can to help, but even they don’t seem to fully understand the complexities, faults and gaps of the various coverage plans and systems with which they work.
I’ve also spent time living in the United Kingdom and depended on the National Health Service.
That experience can also be summed up in a few words: affordable, dependable and easy to navigate.
True, the NHS is an expensive system funded by high taxes. Nearly 30p out of every £1 spent on public services goes to health care in the U.K.; and last year that amounted to more than £156 billion.
But with the NHS, everything, from visits with general practitioners and specialists as well as prescriptions from the local pharmacies and special delivery pharmacies, is operated under a single system. Because of that, the miscommunications of doctors to pharmacies and insurance providers I spent so much time dealing with in the U.S. proved inconsequential in the U.K.
Under the NHS I dealt with little to no extra costs (even my normally exorbitantly priced specialty medications cost a mere £8 per month) and I never waited more than two weeks for any appointments or referrals.
I know the perfect health care system doesn’t exist. Even the most staunch supporters of universal systems complain about them. And as much as I like the NHS and prefer it to the U.S. system, I know that it too has issues and needs improvement — like decreasing wait times at hospitals and increasing social care services for the country’s aging population.
But if my own experiences navigating the pros and cons of the U.S. hybrid system versus a universal system have taught me anything, it’s that the U.S. would do well to follow the lead of other developed nations and begin working to envision and create its own unique iteration of universal health care.
The high cost of care
By separating every element of the health care industry into separate businesses dependent on turning a profit, health care in the U.S. has become more about making money than providing care.
The fact that I — a privileged, white, highly educated, middle-class woman — can barely afford my medical expenses at times, even with relatively good employer-provided coverage, points to a bigger systemic problem, especially for those in less privileged situations.
As a nation, we continually ignore the fundamental idea declared by the World Health Organization in 1948 — that health care is a basic human right. And human rights aren’t meant to be profited on.
Through the combination of private insurance companies and public taxes, individuals in the U.S. end up spending almost twice as much as comparable countries on health care through both public and private spending, according to data from the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker. Reports from 2018 showed that the U.S. spent around twice as much per person for health costs compared to other countries. And health care costs on average in the U.S. overall exceed those of any other developed country.
According to the Kaiser Foundation, the majority of uninsured adults in the U.S. in 2019 said they were uninsured because they couldn’t afford the cost of health insurance coverage. Over the past few years, the percentage of Americans not covered by insurance of any kind has increased from 10.9% to more than 13.7% according to the Gallup National Health and Well-being Index.
This increase has affected both older and younger generations following changes to the Affordable Care Act as well as additional challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, health care has, for many, evolved to feel more like an out of reach luxury than a basic human right.
And, despite efforts from major proponents of the free market, like the billionaire investor Mark Cuban, who recently announced the launch of a new company aimed at mitigating the rising costs of generic prescription drugs, creating more companies for competition isn’t realistically going to solve the overall problems of rising pharmaceutical and health care costs in our nation.
We need something much more than that.
When making money and beating out the competition are the main driving factors behind medical services, the people who actually need help and care end up needlessly suffering beyond the direct effects of their health problems.
Health care should be about people and meeting their needs, not about making a profit.
As Vox writer Dylan Scott noted last year after comparing the health care systems of several countries, every developed and leading nation except the U.S. has found a way to make “being uninsured or going bankrupt over medical bills a thing of the past.”
Health care in America needs to be not only more affordable and cost effective, but also easier to navigate and understand for the common American citizen. We need to transform health care into a practiced right that is truly accessible to all.
Voters consistently rank health care costs as a top public policy concern. Due to my own personal experiences, it has become one of my primary concerns as well. And with a new administration now in place, it’s time for the U.S. to seriously revisit the idea of implementing a universal health care system.
To do that, we need to start with reshaping the narrative of who is responsible for health care, because the truth is we are all responsible for balancing the costs of health care.
The difference comes merely in how the costs are being distributed among contributors and beneficiaries. In our current system, the burden is being unduly placed on those most in need of help.
A single payer universal system like the NHS may prove not to be the answer to America’s health care problems, but dismantling the profit-driven aspects of the industry and increasing transparency and communication are certainly the first steps to a better and healthier future for us all.