The US is entering a healthcare crisis, many activists are warning. It has one of the poorest health profiles in the developed world, it has been assessed. Around 46 million in that country people do not have health insurance because they cannot afford it.
Drug prices, health insurance, doctor visits and hospital stays are too expensive for many people to afford, while insurance and drug company profits continue to climb.
While the profits of pharmaceutical giants continue to soar, healthcare is bankrupting even well-to-do U.S. citizens.
Also to be noted is that the country has a high rate of untreated diabetes and high blood pressure, which fall disproportionately on African Americans.
"The reason our health system is so crazy is we treat healthcare as a commodity. That really doesn't work. Most countries see it as part of their job to take care of their people," points out Meizhu Lui, executive director of United for a Fair Economy, a prominent non-governmental organization.
The U.S. system is mostly privatized, which means that individuals alone or through their employers must buy their healthcare and health insurance on the open market.
Prices of many health services have soared in recent years, and today individuals and the government spend 2.3 trillion dollars annually to purchase health insurance, doctor visits, medicines, hospital stays and special tests, according to Families USA, a health advocacy group.
The U.S. system today has created strange incentives, so that high-tech care is abundant for those who can pay for it, while preventive care, like annual checkups, is not encouraged, critics charge.
Also healthcare companies wield tremendous political power, Lui noted.
For years, health activists, organizations of the elderly and labor unions have tried to convince Congress to allow citizens and the government to negotiate bulk prices for drugs or to purchase them from Canada, rather than paying full price on the open U.S. market.
Congress has not budged on this or other healthcare reform issues.
Behind the scenes, drug companies, hospitals, insurance companies and doctor organizations spent 400 million in 2005 and 2006 lobbying Congress and federal candidates to enact policies the companies favor.
"Our government, instead of helping people, is being held hostage by these profit-making companies," Lui says.
People who have an existing illness, like asthma, are charged double the price for insurance or may be refused altogether, said Woolhandler, who founded Physicians for a National Health Program, which wants the United States to switch to a government-run healthcare system, as in Canada.
"Our healthcare is in a car that is accelerating toward a cliff," Alan Sager, co-director of the Health Reform Project at Boston University, remarks caustically.
The government does provide subsidized healthcare for the elderly and some of the poor and disabled. But the procedures involved are quite complicated.
Talking about the problems in negotiating one's way through the maze of the government-assisted Medicaid, a woman broke out bitterly: Without a health care advocate, I can't imagine how a weak, frail, nearly bed-ridden individual can navigate this new territory.
Our "wonderful" system is baffling and daunting when one is young, vibrant, and basically healthy. With the challenges of age, terminal illness, and isolation, I imagine a lot of the elderly might die prematurely or suffer unnecessarily.
Witnessing this from the vantage point of middle age is frightening. Everyone should be covered, automatically, period.
Let the wealthy buy more insurance for the spa-experience in medical care. The basics should be available seamlessly for everyone, she said.