American Healthcare costs

Another report on the exorbitant cost of the American healthcare system

Over the radio a man recounted how his wife was bitten by a rabid fox, and the emergency responder told them she had 24 hours to get the rabies vaccination. What they weren’t told was that the hospital would charge them $24,000 for the possibly life saving shot. Every couple of months WNYC in partnership with Clear Health Costs, share local stories about the horrors and challenges of American healthcare system. And the data backs that up.

The National Bureau of Economic Research recently released a report highlighting the cost of US healthcare compared to other economically developed countries. If you don’t subscribe to the NBER (“live everyday like its NBER day”) you don’t know what you’re missing. Last month’s report was another in depth look at healthcare costs in America. The top-line of course is that America spends a lot on healthcare and it is an outlier among OECD nations.

And even though we spend more than any other nation, healthcare outcomes have been middling to poor. Recently the life expectancy of the average American has trended down for the first time since World War I. The trend has continued to go down through 2019 and shows no sign of improvement. This is also an OECD outlier.

As a statistics nerd, however, I am obligated to point out that life-expectancy is not always the best measure of outcomes. The downward trend does represent an increase in deaths but more importantly those deaths have been among a younger cohort than other countries, the prime-age worker population 25–65, as America struggles with its opioid epidemic. The relative youth in this cohort has a disproportionate effect on the life expectancy statistic.

There are many reasons for life expectancy to decline, war, famine, etc, that are outside the realm of the local healthcare politics. The opioid epidemic, however, is a product of the failures of the American healthcare system in the way it regulates drugs. America is one of the few healthcare systems that allows drug companies to aggressively market to doctors and consumers. In Europe where no such marketing exists, opioid use has not seen a stark rise like the US has seen. Even in Canada where they do allow doctors to be marketed to, the incentives seem to prevent this kind of abuse. There has been an increase worldwide of opioid deaths but nowhere has the rise been as severe as in the United States.

The report goes on to highlight papers that evaluate the ACA, compare physician behavior, hospital behavior and pharmaceuticals to other countries. As a data diver though, I’ve been doing my own work trying to break through healthcare data, but this is where you, dear reader, can make a difference. Clear Health Costs is a public database that lists local medical procedures by their cost. The data collected from regular people self-reporting the prices on bills they receive from hospitals, doctors, and pharmacists, pre-insurance. The cost of common procedures like mammograms, teeth fillings, vasectomies is completely opaque to the general public and going to a hospital is often a gamble with people’s lives and life savings. That’s why self reported data is so important. There can be study after study about specific health issues but without a transparent market to find out what exactly a health condition costs, there is no hope to addressing the cost of the healthcare system at large.

Political Data Analyst. Professional experience in statistical models and surface and air microbiology.

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