Sunday, December 18, 2011

To improve health the US must spend more on social services

That the US spends far more, in total and per capita, on health care than any other country is a well-established fact which no one bothers to deny. That this expenditure has not brought us greater health is also established fact, although many still find this hard to believe, or don’t want to believe it. That we do not have the “best health care system in the world”, or even close, or even, actually, a health care system at all, is also demonstrably true. This does not stop a larger percent of the population, and particularly the very privileged sector represented by politicians, from maintaining that untruth.

However, in a provocative op-ed in the New York Times (“To fix health care, help the poor”), Elizabeth H. Bradley and Lauren Taylor argue that it is only when health care is viewed in its most narrow sense that the US spends more than other countries. Their study of 30 countries expenditures, “Health and social services expenditures: associations with health outcomes”[1], “…broadened the scope of traditional health care industry analyses to include spending on social services, like rent subsidies, employment-training programs, unemployment benefits, old-age pensions, family support and other services that can extend and improve life.”

Essentially, their data shows that having services available to people that improve the quality of their lives, or, more important, decrease the negative health impact of the adverse circumstances into which they are born, develop, and live, lessens disease burden and improves health. This then decreases the costs of providing medical care to them. For example, they note, “The Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program tracked the medical expenses of 119 chronically homeless people for several years. In one five-year period, the group accounted for 18,834 emergency room visits estimated to cost $12.7 million.”

Bradley and Taylor indicate that among industrialized countries, the US ranks #10 in total health + social service spending , and is one of only 3 that spend more on health care than on all other social services. This means that, in addition to not getting the preventive or early-intervention health care that they need, Americans are at higher risk of illness and more ill when they come to medical attention. They may not be homeless, although obviously this dramatically increases their risk. People may not have adequate food, not have adequate warmth (see the discussion of “excess winter deaths” in Michael Marmot, the British Medical Association, and the Social Determinants of Health, November 1, 2011), not had a safe environment. They likely had far too little income. Many of them are children, and many of those, and often their parents before them, have had an inadequate education. A large number of the determinants of health are antenatal, and many more are in the early years of life. The other group at high risk of both adverse health outcomes and the poverty-related social deficits that influence them, are the elderly. So what do we see in the US? Threats to cut Medicare, cut Social Security, cut education.

This wouldn’t affect everyone equally, of course. Only the most vulnerable. Or, at least, the more vulnerable. The wealthy, of course, are unlikely to be inadequately housed, inadequately nourished, inadequately educated, and, in a tautology, inadequately employed. Another recent study, from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), called “Divided we stand: why economic inequality keeps rising”, demonstrates rising inequality in income as indicated by the difference between the income of the top 10% and bottom 10%. “The income gap has risen even in traditionally egalitarian countries, such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden, from 5 to 1 in the 1980s to 6 to 1 today. The gap is 10 to 1 in Italy, Japan, Korea and the United Kingdom, and higher still, at 14 to 1 in Israel, Turkey and the United States. In Chile and Mexico, the incomes of the richest are still more than 25 times those of the poorest, the highest in the OECD, but have finally started dropping. Income inequality is much higher in some major emerging economies outside the OECD area. At 50 to 1, Brazil's income gap remains much higher than in many other countries, although it has been falling significantly over the past decade.”


In the report’s “country note” on the US, it observes that “The United States has the fourth-highest inequality level in the OECD, after Chile, Mexico and Turkey. Inequality among working-age people has risen steadily since 1980, in total by 25%. In 2008, the average income of the top 10% of Americans was 114 000 USD, nearly 15 times higher than that of the bottom 10%, who had an average income of 7 800 USD. This is up from 12 to 1 in the mid 1990s, and 10 to 1 in the mid 1980s….Income taxes and cash benefits play a small role in redistributing income in the United States, reducing inequality by less than a fifth – in a typical OECD country, it is a quarter. Only in Korea, Chile and Switzerland is the effect still smaller.” Of course, comparing deciles is deceiving; as the Occupy Wall Street movement emphasizes, the concentration of wealth is in the top 1%, and economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman (“We are the 99.9%”, November 24, 2011) and others point out that most of that wealth in the US is in the top 0.1%! The wealthiest 400 families in the US own as much as the bottom 50% of the population.


One obvious result of the rising inequality in the US is the increase in the overt control that this wealthy class exerts over the political process, through direct lobbying, political contributions, employment after and between stints of government service, and control of media. The “corporate personhood” decision by the US Supreme Court in Citizens United simply codified and protected this inequality. But income inequality in itself is not sufficient to lead to the destruction of the social safety net that exposes increasing numbers and percents of people to ravages that adversely affect their health. It also requires extreme selfishness and disrespect, so that billionaire people and corporations pay little in tax, and governments are purposely squeezed so that they have neither the will nor the resources to provide services.


The findings of Bradley and Taylor are not news to the public health community, of course, which is very familiar with the social determinants of health and the positive impact that investment in basic social supports has on the health outcomes of both populations and individual people. Investment is required to see future benefit, and the investment that we need, and are not making, is in education, is in nutrition, is in housing. It is far more than a shame. It is shameful.  

[1 Bradley EH, Elkins BR, Herrin J, Elbel B.,Health and social services expenditures: associations with health outcomes, BMJ Qual Saf. 2011 Oct;20(10):826-31. Epub 2011 Mar 29

1 comment:

Margot Smith, Dr.P.H. said...

It is a no-brainer--hospitals and medicine serving the poor will always need subsidy. They will never be self supporting. Policy which tries to do this is unreal.

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