Flawed Accounting for the US Health Spending Problem
By Jeff Goldsmith
Source: OECD, Our World in Data
Late last year, I saw this chart which made my heart sink. It compared US life expectancy to its health spending since 1970 vs. other countries. As you can see, the US began peeling off from the rest of the civilized world in the mid-1980’s. Then US life expectancy began falling around 2015, even as health spending continued to rise. We lost two more full years of life expectancy to COVID. By the end of 2022, the US had given up 26 years-worth of progress in life expectancy gains. Adding four more years to the chart below will make us look even worse.
Of course, this chart had a political/policy agenda: look what a terrible social investment US health spending has been! Look how much more we are spending than other countries vs. how long we live and you can almost taste the ashes of diminishing returns. This chart posits a model where you input health spending into the large black box that is the US economy and you get health out the other side.
The problem is that is not how things work. Consider another possible interpretation of this chart: look how much it costs to clean up the wreckage from a society that is killing off its citizens earlier and more aggressively than any other developed society. It is true that we lead the world in health spending. However, we also lead the world in a lot of other things health-related.
Exceptional Levels of Gun Violence
Americans are ten times more likely than citizens of most other comparable countries to die of gun violence. This is hardly surprising, since the US has the highest rate of gun ownership per capita in the world, far exceeding the ownership rates in failed states such as Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. The US has over 400 million guns in circulation, including 20 million military style semi-automatic weapons. Firearms are the leading cause of deaths of American young people under the age of 24. According to the Economist, in 2021, 38,307 Americans aged between 15 and 24 died vs. just 2185 in Britain and Wales. Of course, lots of young lives lost tilt societal life expectancies sharply downward.
A Worsening Mental Health Crisis
Of the 48 thousand deaths from firearms every year in the US, over 60% are suicides (overwhelmingly by handguns), a second area of dubious US leadership. The US has the highest suicide rate among major western nations. There is no question that the easy access to handguns has facilitated this high suicide rate.
About a quarter of US citizens self-report signs of mental distress, a rate second only to Sweden. We shut down most of our public mental hospitals a generation ago in a spasm of “de-institutionalization” driven by the arrival of new psychoactive drugs which have grossly disappointed patients and their families. As a result, the US has defaulted to its prison system and its acute care hospitals as “treatment sites”; costs to US society of managing mental health problems are, not surprisingly, much higher than other countries. Mental health status dramatically worsened during the COVID pandemic and has only partially recovered.
Drug Overdoses: The Parallel Pandemic
On top of these problems, the US has also experienced an explosive increase in drug overdoses, 110 thousand dead in 2022, attributable to a flood of deadly synthetic opiates like fentanyl. This casualty count is double that of the next highest group of countries, the Nordic countries, and is again the highest among the wealthy nations. If you add the number of suicides, drug overdoses and homicides together, we lost 178 thousand fellow Americans in 2021, in addition to the 500 thousand person COVID death toll. The hospital emergency department is the departure portal for most of these deaths.
Maternal Mortality Risks
The US also has the highest maternal mortality rate of any comparable nation, almost 33 maternal deaths per hundred thousand live births in 2021. This death rate is more than triple that of Britain, eight times that of Germany and almost ten times that of Japan. Black American women have a maternal mortality rate almost triple that of white American women, and 15X the rate of German women. Sketchy health insurance coverage certainly plays a role here, as does inconsistent prenatal care, systemic racial inequities, and a baseline level of poor health for many soon-to-be moms.
Then you have the obesity epidemic. Obesity rates began rising in the US in the late 1980’s right around when the US peeled away from the rest of the countries on the chart above. Some 42% of US adults are obese, a number that seemed to be levelling off in the late 2010’s, but then took another upward lurch in the past couple of years. Only the Pacific Island nations have higher obesity rates than the US does. And with obesity, conditions like diabetes flourish. Nearly 11% of US citizens suffer from diabetes, a sizable fraction of whom are undiagnosed (and therefore untreated). US diabetes prevalence is nearly double that of France, with its famously rich diets.Continue reading…