U.S. Health Care Costs In Perspective

November 4, 2011
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It was Stalin who said “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” We might not like to be reminded that he was right, that we could possibly think that way, but I’m afraid we do. It’s why the news can’t provide us enough coverage of the mysterious disappearance of a single child, but no one decries their failure to mention the thousands of children that day every day from a host of preventable diseases, poverty, and inhumane acts.

It was Stalin who said “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” We might not like to be reminded that he was right, that we could possibly think that way, but I’m afraid we do. It’s why the news can’t provide us enough coverage of the mysterious disappearance of a single child, but no one decries their failure to mention the thousands of children that day every day from a host of preventable diseases, poverty, and inhumane acts.

It’s also why we can grow outraged at anything that might affect our own health care or insurance coverage, but can more or less ignore just how much of a mess our health care system is in financially. A dollar out of my own pocket is a tragedy, a million dollars is a federal government rounding error. Perspective seems to be the missing ingredient. We can identify with that single death, that single dollar out of our pocket, that person we know, but most of us can’t imagine a million deaths, don’t know a million people, and don’t have a million dollars. Physics aside, if I ask you how long it would take you to walk to the moon, it’s a math problem you might solve, but it’s not an experience you could understand.

But if we stop comparing apples and oranges and start comparing similar things to each other, we find that we suddenly gain tremendous clarity. Let me show you how it works. If I tell you that the United States spent $2.6 trillion dollars on health care in 2010, you probably think something like “That sounds like a lot” or “That is a big number” or “I wish I had that much money.” (As a side note, according to the law of mo’ money mo’ problems, no you don’t.) I could try to make the number more understandable by telling you how many of something you could buy with the money. The problem is, that thing also has to be pretty expensive, otherwise the resulting number is still extremely large. Case in point: that amount of money would buy you 10 million homes at $260,000 each.

Ezekiel Emanuel (Rahm’s brother), has found a way to put it all into relative perspective that makes alarming sense. According to Zeke, “The United States spends on health care alone what the 65 million people of France spend on everything: education, defense, the environment, scientific research, vacations, food, housing, cars, clothes, and health care.” That’s pretty simple. Our health care spending can be succinctly described as France. Just for fun, our health care spending is also “slightly less than half of what China spends on everything.” California likes to bill itself as the “eighth largest economy in the world,” but they really shouldn’t brag: After all, America’s “health care spending is the fifth largest economy in the world.”