Looking at the costs and benefits of health care

My father was killed by a heart attack at age 56. I have reflected often that had the advanced health care we have now been available in the 1950s and early 1960s, he probably would have lived to a ripe old age.

That’s something we don’t think about enough in our debates over health care and health insurance.

Argue as we do about issues such as repealing and replacing Obamacare, the fundamental problem is that health care is astronomically expensive. It wouldn’t be a problem to cover children up to 26 years of age on their parents’ insurance if doctor’s office visits still cost $10. Prescriptions for low-income people on Medicaid would be easy if a bottle of pills still could be had for $5.

But we Americans spend about $3.2 trillion — nearly $10,000 per person — on health care every year. And the amount keeps going up.

That’s a problem. No amount of dickering and recriminations between Democrats and Republicans will solve it. Anyone who claims to have the answer is either lying or incredibly ill-informed.

So it’s a terrible situation, right?

Stop and think about what we get for that $3.2 trillion. Many Americans don’t bat an eye at spending $40,000 for a new pickup truck. But the same amount for their four-person family’s health in a year is, well, something the politicians need to remedy.

What do we get for the $3.2 trillion? Maybe you have to be a baby boomer to avoid taking the benefits for granted.

For one thing, we get to tell our children to go ahead and play outside. How many of them have even heard of polio?

Remember the agony of a root canal at the dentist? Not if you had one after the health care profession found nearly painless ways to perform the procedure.

Heart problems? They haven’t been a death sentence for many years, now. We can even transplant hearts into people whose original equipment tickers are beyond repair. The death rate from major cardiovascular disease is about half what it was 50 years ago.

Pneumonia and influenza? Here’s a prescription. Call me if you don’t feel better in a day or two. The death rate from those diseases is about one-sixth what it was 100 years ago.

We’re living longer, in part because health care is better (though there are many other factors, including diet). Fifty years ago, the average life expectancy for an American man was 67 years. Now, it’s 76.5 years. For women, it was 74.2 years in 1967. It’s 81.1 now.

And yes, we’re enjoying life more.

Let’s look at what once was a leading cause of death for women: childbirth. The rate of women who die from that cause is approximately one-fortieth what is was 100 years ago.

Can we do a better job with health insurance? Sure. Ditto with medical care costs.

But is what we’re paying a bargain? Ask yourself this question: At about $10,000 per year, an American woman with average life expectancy pays out $810,100 for medical care during her lifetime.

Is the nearly seven years of life she’s gained since 1967 worth that?

Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News Register.

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