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The Harkness Fellows on the paradoxes of US health care

September 11, 2019

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Angèle Malâtre-Lansac
Health Affairs Blog, August 28, 2019

Editor’s Note: In addition to Angèle Malâtre-Lansac, this post was conceived of and written by the 2018-2019 Harkness Fellows on health care policy and practice listed at end of this post.

Each year, the Commonwealth Fund selects an international cohort of Harkness Fellows in health care policy and practice, consisting of mid-career researchers, policy makers, and practitioners with leading positions in their countries, who come to the US to study the health care system, work with renowned US health policy experts, and provide input to US health care and research, drawing on insights from their own international contexts.

Reflections on health care in the US are commonplace: In our view, what is less common are observations and reflections from health experts from seven other countries on US health care. What are the most surprising aspects of the US system through the lenses of 10 observers from Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and England?

No Such Thing As The US Health Care System

The United States undeniably provides some of the best health care and is one of the most innovative nations in the world. Financial investments in health and medical research are the envy of us all. Pockets of excellence can be seen in so many places. However, one of our first realizations is that there is no such thing as a single, unified, and coordinated US health care system — but rather a complicated and fragmented health care marketplace. Variations between US states, communities, and health insurance plans are in many cases greater than the differences between our countries. There are many reasons for this, but key among them are our countries’ shared principle of universal health coverage (both within single and multi-payer systems) and our usually nationally negotiated prices.

The diversity across US states is striking to us, particularly in terms of access to, and quality of, health care services. Perhaps, most surprising from our international perspective is the importance of political differences as a unique determinant of regional variations in health care performance. The ongoing debate over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the state-based variation in implementation of the ACA are vivid examples of this diversity and polarization within health care.

While there can be many benefits to diversity and choice, particularly in terms of tailoring services and resources to meet the specific needs of different populations and to ensure appropriate care, too much of a good thing can create problems. As an example, the sheer number of options individuals need to review and decide upon when considering a private health insurance plan or selecting a provider creates complexity, decision fatigue, and frustration.

Health Care As A Privilege, Not A Right

In our countries, there is a broad consensus on the role of the government in health care, as there is in education. Health care is considered a fundamental right. In the US, the federal government does not assume full responsibility for ensuring the right to health care for its citizens. The predominant narrative here frames health as a privilege. This plays out in many ways, but perhaps most notably it is advanced by proponents of work requirements for Medicaid, premised on the idea that access to health care is something to be earned. And yet, many US people cherish Medicare, a government program that provides universal coverage for people ages 65 years and older.

In addition, although we hear a lot of discussion about the costs of care, it is surprising how little of the conversation is on the costs of care not delivered. Approximately 28.5 million Americans have no health insurance, and it’s well known that being uninsured negatively affects your health and is costly. There are costs for the individuals; for the families who rely on those individuals for financial and other forms of support; for the businesses whose employees are absent, unproductive, or retire early; for the health care system, which ends up providing more expensive reactive care; and for society at large.

Another stark difference between the US and our own countries is the high level of financial burden placed on its people. Prominent in the US health care system are the high-deductible health plans driven by the idea that cost-sharing obligations will encourage people to prioritize high-value care and reduce health care spending. Yet, recent evidence suggest that populations on such plans delay or skip essential care entirely and as a consequence, experience adverse effects.

The Price Problem

On average, the US spends twice as much as other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries on health care without evidence of superior care or health outcomes. In fact, life expectancy is declining in the US while health care costs continue to rise. Grossly inflated drug and device prices, overall health care costs, and surprise billing are big challenges. Substantial administration and advertising costs are a further unintended consequence of the primacy placed on individual choice. Quite simply, everything is more expensive in the United States than it is in our countries.

Drug prices in the US are three to six times higher than in many European countries, despite decades of calls for change. Our countries use Health Technology Assessment (HTA)—a multidisciplinary approach that considers the clinical, economic, legal, ethical, and organizational aspects of new technologies such as drugs, devices, and procedures. The core principle is to determine the added value of new technologies compared to existing alternatives to inform authorities responsible for coverage and reimbursement decisions. Unlike in our countries, there is no single agency tasked with addressing this issue in the US.

The Accountability Problem

In an article recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, “The Not-My-Problem Problem,” Lisa Rosenbaum provides a persuasive account of the unintended consequences of diffusion of responsibility in a highly fragmented US health care system. According to the World Health Organization’s Health System Framework, well-functioning health care systems share several characteristics, including leadership and governance, factors that play essential roles in achieving the goals of health systems, regardless of how health systems are organized and designed.

In the US, governance is often unclear, and there is no shared understanding of what each actor in the health care system is accountable for (and to whom). At the end of the day, the entire system seems beholden to one thing: the “bottom line.” The lack of a commitment to universal coverage, as well as the many different stakeholders and multiplicity of intermediaries in the supply chain, might explain this phenomenon.

These lessons may not come as a great surprise to the many policy makers and researchers who have long studied and aspired to improve health care in the US. Our hope is that, by highlighting the challenges that stand out most acutely to us as outsiders, this international perspective may provoke thoughtful discussion about how to achieve better health outcomes. Addressing those great challenges is like tackling climate change — it’s both crucial and painful. Taking the necessary steps toward a greater good first requires agreement on what that looks like. The opportunity of the upcoming presidential campaign will undoubtedly make it possible to bring a new vision for the future of US health care.

Author’s Note

Support for this research was provided by the Commonwealth Fund. The views presented here are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Commonwealth Fund or its directors, officers, or staff.

2018-2019 Harkness Fellows on health care policy and practice from the Commonwealth Fund:

Angèle Malâtre-Lansac, France
Mary Docherty, UK
Unni Gopinathan, Norway
Cornelia Henschke, Germany
Prakash Jayakumar, UK
Nadine Kasparian, Australia
Grégoire Mercier, France
Huseyin Naci, UK
Andrew Old, New Zealand
Laura Shields-Zeeman, Netherlands



By Don McCanne, M.D.

This perspective is very helpful to us because it represents the views of highly qualified health policy experts from other nations who have come to the United States to study our system. The objective view they present can be invaluable in our own assessment of our health care system as we consider what can be done to improve it.

Considering our unique culture and politics, it is very difficult to see how we could effectively address the issues discussed short of enacting and implementing a single payer model of an improved Medicare that covered everyone. The sooner, the better.

Stay informed! Visit www.pnhp.org/qotd to sign up for daily email updates.

About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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