Matthew Casey: Health care a broken system

Matthew Casey

On the morning of March 23, Alyson Myatt awoke to the sound of a wailing smoke alarm. Disregarding her own safety, she ran barefoot down a hallway that was engulfed in flames to save a 5-year-old boy from what authorities claim would have been certain death.

The child was unharmed, but the 22-year-old nanny suffered third degree burns to both feet, and second and third degree burns to her right hand. During her subsequent hospitalization, it was revealed that she did not have health insurance.

Alyson is currently accepting charitable contributions to help pay for her treatment and rehabilitation. According to a dedicated website, all donations “will be used to assist Alyson in her return to a full life.”

Though Alyson’s selfless heroism is extraordinary, her current predicament is not.

Columnist George Will recently questioned the necessity of health care reform by accurately noting that 85 percent of Americans already have health insurance. Will failed to make the equally accurate observation that 15 percent of Americans do not.

That overlooked 15 percent equates to 47 million people, including more than nine million children.

It is often said the United States provides the best health care services in the world, and by many measures, that assessment is correct. However, the quality of the service available to some is irrelevant if you are among the millions of Americans who cannot afford access to it.

Many elements of the recently enacted health care reform law do not take effect for weeks, or even years. In the meantime, we’re left with essentially the same core system we had before.

By now, we should all be aware that the U.S. was the only major industrialized country not to provide health coverage to all its citizens. Instead of a universal system, we rely on a haphazard patchwork of private insurers that results in duplicative administrative expenses and an inconsistent maze of arbitrary rules.

Most insured Americans couldn’t afford the insurance they have if their employers didn’t offer it as a subsidized benefit. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average family premium in 2009 was $13,375, up from $6,438 in 2000.

In fact, the U.S. spends $7,600 per capita for health care, an amount almost double that paid by any other country. What do we get for our money?

- Almost 1 of every 6 Americans is without health coverage.

- The World Health Organization ranks the United States health care system 37th.

- A Harvard Medical School study found that nearly 45,000 people die in the U.S. each year because they lack health insurance.

- According to the CIA Factbook, the U.S. ranks 49th in life expectancy and 45th in infant mortality.

- A study of 19 leading industrialized nations ranked the United States last in terms of preventing deaths from treatable conditions and found that better access to health care would save more than 100,000 lives each year.

Due to differences in data collection, any statistical comparison should to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, repeated — and repeatable — negative findings tend to show that we are not getting our money’s worth with the current system.

The pursuit of affordable health care isn’t an endorsement of socialism or the so-called “nanny state.” It’s simply good business. Members of a healthy population can work, contribute to society and support their families, decreasing overall costs for everyone.

In contrast, the uninsured tend to avoid regular check ups, fail to catch medical problems early, and delay or avoid necessary treatment. As a result, many potentially minor, treatable or avoidable conditions become far more serious.

Many uninsured Americans face bankruptcy and become so ill they can no longer work. Once their incomes are sufficiently low to qualify for government coverage, we all share the expense of their care, but only after it becomes far more expensive to treat them.

Ironically, for all of the current system’s shortcomings, few issues have provoked a more visceral public response than efforts to enact health care reform. For some reason, it seems to be easier to spend trillions of dollars fighting unnecessary wars or rewarding those responsible for destroying our economy than is it to provide the security of adequate health care to all Americans.

Many opponents of health care reform note the lack of an explicit reference to health care in the Constitution and claim that health care is not a right. Perhaps it should be.

After all, the freedoms reserved by the people through the Constitution are only beneficial if you are alive to exercise them.

Read more from Medford Transcript contributor Matthew Casey at